New tool for better resource efficiency in products

​In her doctoral thesis, Siri Willskytt has investigated how products can become more resource efficient and reduce their environmental impact through various physical measures. Based on these results she has developed recommendations and a tool for product design. She has particularly studied consumables and seen that there is great potential to reduce the use of resources, for instance through the correct use of the product.

​What challenges do you focus on in your research?

“My research focuses on several challenges. Within the concept of circular economy, which aims to reduce resource losses in society through recirculation and extended use of products and their materials, there are many measures that are often prioritized according to a general hierarchy. These general rankings are not always valid, or relevant to all products, and can in some cases lead to increased material use and increased environmental impact. It is therefore important to identify which measures lead to resource efficiency and for what types of product these measures are suitable. The first challenge is to investigate what measures aimed at improving the use of resources and the environmental impact of products actually lead to its intended outcome.”

“These general rankings of measures can also be found in the world of product design. For the same reason as already mentioned, they are not always relevant or suitable.  To investigate whether a new product design leads to an environment and resource improvement, one can investigate the new product with the help of life cycle assessments. But conducting life cycle assessments is a time consuming and information-intensive method. There is therefore a need for design methods that point to which design recommendations for resource efficiency are suitable for different products, and that inform about potential trade-offs in terms of increased resource use and environmental impact – without having to do a life cycle assessment.”

“Another challenge is specifically what measures, both in general and in design, are possible for short-lived products such as food, packaging, soap, disposable products and short-lived components in long-lived products. These products have been somewhat overshadowed in research on circular economy compared to durable products.”  

How do you address the problem with your research?

”My research contributes by examining for which products, with what characteristics, different measures are suitable for. This was done through analysis and synthesis of lessons learned from a large number of life cycle analyzes of various products and measures for resource efficiency. In addition to identifying measures linked to product characteristics, so-called “trade-offs” were also identified, that is, about potential shifts in increased resource use and environmental impact when introducing a measure. These lessons have also been further processed into design guidelines expressed as a tool. The tool accordingly helps the designer to find relevant design recommendations based on his product characteristics and also informs about possible trade-offs and how these can be avoided.”

“I have also conducted a life cycle assessment to investigate the potential to improve a specific consumable, namely incontinence products. That study examines four different measures that can be applied to different places of the product's life cycle.”

“In addition, I have also investigated the extent to which general design guidelines, namely those that should be useful for all types of products to create more resource-efficient products, provide relevant recommendations for consumables.”

What are the main findings of your research?

”First, by showing that not all circular measures actually lead to improved environmental performance and resource use. Second, the identification of which product characteristics determine which measures are suitable for different products. Product characteristics are about whether a product is durable or consumable, how the product is used or not used during its lifetime and whether the product, for example, requires additional resources when used. These results show that a general ranking of measures is not useful, but it is the characteristics of products that determine what is possible and appropriate. This is important both in general for companies that work with resource efficiency and circular economy, but also specifically for product developers.”

“Another important contribution from my research is that it has highlighted what is possible to do with consumables. That is, both which physical measures and which design guidelines are suitable for different types of short-lived products and to show that there is great potential for reducing these products' resource use and environmental impact. For example, in the life cycle assessment of incontinence products, I showed that it was possible to improve the resource efficiency considerably by making sure that the user used a product that matched their real needs. This result highlighted that there is great potential to improve resource efficiency by improving the use of products.”

What do you hope your research will lead to?

“I hope that the dissertation, by pointing out important product characteristics to take into account, can guide companies, for example, in assessing which circular measures could suit their products in order to improve their resource efficiency. I also hope that designers use these lessons in their work through the design tools developed in my research to point out which actions and design recommendations are relevant to their product type. Furthermore, I hope that the thesis’ highlight on consumables will result in more circular economy research on consumables and their challenges.”
 

Text compilation: Daniel Karlsson
 
The tool REDIG – Resource Efficient DesIgn Guidelines – can be downloaded here (see supplementary material)


The thesis defence will be online on Zoom, 16 October at 10.00, see link on the thesis’ page

More about Siri Willskytt


Published: Mon 12 Oct 2020.