7 great examples of bottom up circularity and why they’re important

User experience designer

oktober 22, 2020

During a three-month long study trip through Europe earlier this year, I met with people and organisations who run projects and small businesses based on the principles of the circular economy. Here are some of their projects, giving you a glimpse into the state of circularity from a different angle: the bottom up.

A van and a mission

Call me cliché, but that was what it felt like at the beginning of 2020. I had gotten 3 months off from my work as a service designer at Valtech and was about to embark on a roadtrip through Europe, which I eventually called The Circular Trip. The plan was to learn as much as possible about community projects working with the principles of the circular economy. New to that term? The circular economy, or just circularity, is about keeping resources in use as long as possible instead of letting it go to waste. It’s a method for moving towards a more sustainable way of running our society. The Ellen McArthur Foundation – pioneers within the field – has formulated three principles which sum it up quite well:

  • Design out waste and pollution

  • Keep products and materials in use

  • Regenerate natural systems

The projects I visited were based on these principles. Some of them were run by community groups, others were start-ups, studios or organisations. But they all come from a bottom-up will to make a change.

7 great examples of bottom up circularity

All in all I visited over 20 projects, many of which you can read more about on www.thecirculartrip.com. Here are some of my favourites:

Reusabol, Barcelona

First up is Reusabol, who is eliminating take-away waste by offering a reusable container instead. There are similar businesses popping up all over Europe, with a range of different models. The Reusabol can be used in selected lunch restaurants in the neighbourhood of Poublenou, known for its many tech-hubs and office spaces. The system is based on people bringing back the containers to restaurants after having used them, so starting off in one neighbourhood has been logistically important to the start-up. The containers are cleaned by the café and distributed out by Reusabol to make the access even across restaurants.

Reusabol, Barcelona

Buurman, Rotterdam and Utrecht

Buurman is a shop for reclaimed building material as well as a wood workshop. Here you can buy that one piece of wood that you needed for a new shelf or purchase larger quantities if you’re a professional carpenter or builder. Another part of Buurmans business is offering different woodworking workshops (try saying that five times fast). An important aspect of these workshops is teaching what they call material driven design – how to design with and from reclaimed material instead of designing something first and then go looking for material. In material driven design you base your design on the material that is available. Look first, design second and grow a mentality of using what is available.

Buurman, Rotterdam and Utrecht

Recycle on the spot, Berlin

Recycle on the spot demystifies plastic recycling. They build and sell compact DIY recycling machines which makes it possible to grind down plastic, melt it and make it into something new! They aim to sell them to companies, organisations and NGOs in south-east Asia, where plastic pollution is a huge problem and where these machines could create jobs and business opportunities for communities. But they could just as easily be used in Europe. Recycle on the spot is part of a network called Precious plastics, where the open source drawings for the machines originally come from. They have plastic labs all over Europe – be sure to check them out!

Precious Plastics Berlin

Recyclo, Lausanne

Recyclo was started by a group of students in Lausanne who saw a potential in old bikes. Today they run a not-profit where they fix old bikes and rent them out. The target group is people who are living in Lausanne for a shorter period of time and need a bike to get around, like students or visiting professionals. They’re also an alternative if you want to test using a bike as your means of transportation. Lausanne is a hilly city and some people can find the idea of biking here a bit daunting and want to try it out for a bit. Recyclo is still run by mostly volunteers, but they also train interns as part of a social integration program. Doing good for planet and people!

Recyclo, Lausanne

Ludotheks, Switzerland

The Ludotheks are the most established example from The Circular Trip. They are toy libraries, and in Switzerland and Liechtenstein there are over 350 of them, with different business models and ways of organizing. The one I visited, in the small town of Brugg, is open three times a week and runs on a subscription model. Buy a whole year all-inclusive subscription and borrow as many toys as you like or opt for a pay-as-you-go subscription which has a cheaper intro price but where you also pay per item you borrow.

Ludotheks, Switzerland

Library of things, London

Libraries where you can borrow things are not new. But The Library of Things in Crystal Palace in London is adding technology and design, making it stand out. While many other thing-libraries are physical and close to non-digital, LoT have designed a beautiful service adapted to a digital age. Here you can borrow anything from tents and party equipment to tools and sewing machines.

Library of things London

Bela Flor community garden, Lisbon

Bela Flor truly illustrates the third principle of the circular economy: Regenerating natural systems. In a previously unnoticeable hillside in the Lisbon neighborhood of Campolide, a community group is building up an agroforest with a myriad of different plants, trees and bushes. The goal is to learn how to regenerate land, which means making it come alive again by building up biodiversity and restoring ecosystems and water systems. In the best examples it can bring back species to areas where they were previously extinct. The project is supported by the local parish and is placed here partly because Campolide is a poor area where projects like these can bring a lot of positive side-effects, like building community and increasing the feeling of pride and safety in the area.

Bela Flor community garden, Lisbon

Urbonera composting system, Barcelona

Another example of regenerative natural systems is the composting scheme of Urbonera in Barcelona. The system works like this: If you live in the area you can empty your food scraps in the Urbonera bin instead of sending it to the municipal composting facility (aka saving CO2). The guys running the composting process empty it and take it through the necessary stages of decomposing with heat and air. The last stage is a so-called worm bin where earth worms eat what’s left of the organic matter and make it into worm castings, aka a high quality fertilizer. This is then sold, or used in the community garden Connecthort, where the compost bins are placed. Healthy soil is an important principle for regenerating natural systems, and this method is a good alternative to buying soil in the supermarket, where soil quality isn’t always as important as price or manufacturing efficiency. Since I visited Barcelona, Urbonera has also developed a vermicomposting product which they sell.

Why are these projects important?

What does regenerative agriculture projects or libraries of things have to do with you? If you, like me, work within the IT-sector, these projects can feel a bit distant. Like something we might get involved in on our spare time if we find them interesting, but otherwise lingering far away from our daily work life. Here are some reasons why I believe these projects can tell us something important:

They show the value of in-person, not just digital

We are entering a time where we are starting to understand that screens can’t solve all our problems. On the contrary, they actually cause problems when we use them to replace deeply human needs like social interaction and friendships (if you haven’t seen the documentary The Social Dilemma, do it). Many of the projects from The Circular Trip are about meeting in a physical space. And even though Corona is making this more difficult at the moment, the deep need for social interaction and using our bodies is still there. I would love to see technology being used to support this instead of replacing it. Precious Plastics are a great example of this, connecting likeminded makers and equipping them with open source tools and inspiration – through technology.

They give a glimpse into a hyper local future

Imagine putting all of these projects together in your neighbourhood. It would make it a lot easier to live more sustainable, wouldn’t it? You could buy your lunch in a non-disposable container instead of one that lasts for thousands of years. Borrow a speaker system for your party or a tent for going camping with your kids instead of buying one. And while we talk about kids: Why not borrow toys instead of owning all of them? Proximity and physical presence is important to make a service convenient, and neighbourhoods hold a great potential here.

They highlight a culture that is sorely needed

These projects first and foremost tell us a story about a culture that is on the rise and has been for a while. A culture with a strong will to contribute to making change, by doing their bit on a grassroot level. Collaboratively. Hands on. Climate friendly.

The challenge of global warming is a strong motivator for a lot of us. And circularity acts as a method to come up with new, sorely needed solutions. The tools are the same whether you are a grassroot organisation or a company with employees: a design thinking mindset that puts resources into a system and designs out waste.

Tech, user experience, and business design are at the core of what we do at Valtech. We help our clients redefine how to create value for their customers through the latest technology. We have an important role to play in the transition to a circular economy. Feel free to reach out if you are interested in learning more about circular design and explore your circular opportunities together with us!

Inger Steinnes

User Experience & Service Design


Read more on the topic Circularity

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