Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Jannis Kempkens is product designer and material researcher who is passionate about addressing ways we can reduce waste and shift towards a circular economy. As one of the founders of Circology, Jannis is creating open source solutions that help companies tackle waste and circularity challenges. In this fireside chat, Jannis describes what it means to incorporate circularity into our day-to-day lives.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Although ideas around waste, recycling, and circularity can be daunting, Jannis emphasizes that any individual can take action. (Find out below how!)
How did you become interested in the circular economy?
I quickly learned in my product design career that I don’t feel comfortable designing another product that would end up in a landfill. I would like to work more on how we can design better products, change the materials we use, and find ways to use our products differently.
In addition to being a product designer, I’m a trained furniture carpenter. I learned to make furniture for people and I really love that trade! However, after seeing how many times people replace furniture, I became bothered by this concept of waste.
So, I became interested in the circular economy because I was looking for more sustainability strategies. I come from Germany, where we’ve had an extended producer responsibility law since the 90s. We have a long history of engaging in a circular economy, so I grew up with this concept.
What does your current work look like?
I currently spend a lot of time with researchers to find open source solutions to waste and circular development challenges.
How do you define the term “circular economy?”
The circular economy is this idea of having material flows that go in and out of the economy. It’s a strategy for producing a product on a planet with finite resources. If you want to continue producing items in a way that uses current methods, we need to address the fact that we don’t have endless resources.
Do you focus on a specific aspect of the circular economy?
I focus more on the waste aspect of everyday life products. I research ways of making those products with materials that have sustainable end-of-life strategies.
Looking at an end-to-end life cycle involves seeing what a product goes through in its lifetime and where it ends up. Through my work, I ask questions like: Does it need to be compostable or biodegradable? Does the product need to be stronger to last longer?
It’s very energy and carbon intensive to produce a product in the first place, so I want to focus on making products that are safe for the people and our planet.
What are the biggest challenges you encounter? How do you encourage people to think more about the life-cycle of a product?
When I first came to New Zealand, I was really fascinated by how food like potato chips were packaged in composable packaging. I was really curious about finding the producer and having a conversation with him.
When I talked with the producer, he said that he’s getting more companies who are requesting compostable or biodegradable packaging. These companies are worried that their packaging will get washed up on beaches in New Zealand. They didn’t want consumers to think they’re littering and don’t care about their environmental impact.
We see that producers are accepting responsibility. It shows that we’ve gotten pretty far, especially with the plastic industry playing a huge role in packaging.
However, it’s challenging to understand how these materials work.
For example, a lot of companies are producing biobased plastics instead of virgin plastics from crude oil. Biobased plastics are made from growing resources like plants. This type of packaging is often made from corn. You can use the polymers in the plant and turn them into conventional polymers. But, there’s a lot of confusion around what the term “bioplastics” actually means because it can also mean they’re not biodegradable.
There’s also another challenge in understanding what types of plastics can be sorted and figuring out the different types of labels. The variety of plastics makes it really complicated for recycling places to know what to do with them and to decide if they end up in composting facilities.
There needs to be a way more adaptive system on what materials can work with our existing infrastructure. I always say nothing is recyclable or compostable. If you don’t have the infrastructure, even if you have compostable packaging, it’s still going to end up in landfills.
How can people make sense of the different acronyms, numbers, and labels when it comes to recycling?
All the numbers stand for a different type of plastic. There’s a great NPR article that talks about how these labels were introduced by the plastic industry. Just because there’s a triangle label that says an item is recyclable, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be recycled in your area. So, it’s important to do more research and see what actually gets recycled in your area. Afterwards, you can start asking questions about how other materials can get recycled in your municipality.
Another great way to make sense of them is to check out any PDF that shows all the labels.
How do we incorporate circular economy ideas into cultures that haven’t normalized the idea of “reuse?” (ie. How can we rebrand resourceful and ethical living as a lifestyle worth exploring?)
Look at the embodied energy in a product. For instance, think about how much oil was used to create a product you’re consuming. Think about its life cycle and where it’ll likely end up after you dispose of it. Be conscious of how you’re using the products and its aftermath.
Also, even though the circular economy idea is dominated by Western people, it’s not an entirely new idea. Many Indigenous groups have used this idea for a long time—it’s just not referred to as “circular.” It’s important to remember that this concept is an old idea with a new name.
How can we incorporate circularity into our lives?
You can take action in your daily routine. It may not change the world, but it still changes the types of materials that go into our landfills. For example, focus on buying less items in plastic packaging and look into the side effects of what you buy.
You can also start gathering people in your community and work together to brainstorm ways to be more sustainable and circular. For example, you can start at your workplace. Be aware of the materials that are being consumed in your office.
the circular economy is applicable to everyone—anyone can participate. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a non-environmental field. There's several amazing guides and tools out there that you can use to be more circular in your day-to-day life.
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