The Crucial Role of Engineers in Creating the Circular Economy

An Introduction.

Emma Menebroker

11/29/20235 min read

The Crucial Role of Engineers in Creating the Circular Economy

In recent years, the concept of a circular economy has gained considerable momentum. Unlike the prevailing linear model of "take, make, dispose", circular systems emphasize the design of products and materials for prolonged use, reuse, and recycling, thereby minimizing waste and maintaining resources at their maximum use value. Engineers, through their daily application of skills and expertise, are pivotal in steering the shift towards an economy rooted in product regeneration and long-term resource life cycling. Their influence extends to system designing, the shaping of products, and resource processing, allowing them to integrate the fundamental principles of the circular economy into everyday business operations and infrastructure.

Significance of Circular Design

Engineers play a pivotal role in preventing waste throughout a product’s lifecycle by fulfilling circular design principles when conceptualizing new products and designs. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, all “design is creation with intention”. Engineers must have the circular principles front of mind while creating products to ensure the long-term preservation of resources. While our system is very specialized or ‘zoomed in’ on singular consumer needs, we also need to incorporate the practice of ‘zooming out’ in the design process, evaluating how products fit into the larger movement and recycling of resources (1). The three basic key principles of the circular economy are ‘reduce’, through designing out waste and integrating additive manufacturing, ‘preserve’, by maintaining the integrity of raw materials to extend their lifecycle, and ‘regenerate’, keeping natural systems in balance to ensure we have resources long-term (3).

Why Materials Matter

When going to the store, there are many products made from a variety of plastics. While the recycling of a few plastic types makes the task manageable, the sheer quantity of various plastics makes it exceedingly difficult to recycle the resource as efficiently as required. The top three industries that use the most plastic include packaging, followed by construction and transportation (4). All three of these industries require the attention of engineers to design products that are more mindful of circular principles. An example of an ingenious plastic waste solution being implemented by Dutch start-up ReSolved Technologies, is integrating an additional step into the traditional mechanical recycling treatment, where a solvent is used to dissolve higher-quality plastics. This treatment purifies the plastic, dissolving the plastic while other materials remain, and returns the material to an almost-pure state (6).

The collaborative initiative, The Circular Design Guide, has created an eco-conscious assessment for material use via their Materials Journey Mapping tool to assist engineers. In this assessment, they state the central phases that must be evaluated by all circular designers, including the use, production, sourcing, and after-use phases. They also state that any transformations made to materials in the processing phase must be accounted for. This comprehensive guide assists designers in thinking in a more circular mindset (2).

Access Instead of Ownership

An approach to the circular economy gaining traction in recent years is the making of shared products available to consumers, as opposed to individual ownership. This not only removes the burden of maintenance from the individual but allows for more robust designs to see more wear-and-tear from many users. While many of these systems exist for a finite number of often expensive products used for a unique task, these systems are becoming more general. Called the product-as-a-service business model, services will be paid on a subscription or as-needed basis, whether it be to wash laundry or unlock desired car features from the manufacturer. The role of engineers in this model is to not only designing the physical products in use but also the systems that orchestrate communication between the manufacturer and the device.

Repairing and Modularity

Modularity allows for the repair of an item through the replacement of the failing part, as opposed to replacing the entire product. Whether this principle is being implemented in building construction or technology, engineers play a significant role in ensuring that parts can be easily replaced and recycled or repurposed after their current use. An example of the repurposing of a modular component can be seen with the reuse of electric vehicle (EV) batteries. While these batteries still maintain three-fourths of their original energy capacity, they are no longer suitable for today’s EVs. These used batteries can be repurposed for household uses, to run appliances, and to power homes. The use of a modular mindset when engineering will dramatically diminish waste later and ensure that used parts can be adapted to another use.

Employing Technology & Data

Information systems and digital solutions enhance circular capabilities for engineers. Circular economy initiatives are aided by the implementation of technologies including…

  • The Internet of Things (IoT): utilizes sensors to provide real-time data, informing strategic decisions through data analysis and triggering automated processes.

  • RFID Tracking: uses sensors to alert the IoT where an item is located or when inventory is running low.

  • Material Passports: are a systematic way of tracking resources beyond their current use. This tech solution has been implemented in construction settings where individual building materials are tagged and tracked during the construction of a structure, allowing the materials to be reclaimed once the structure is demolished (6).

  • Predictive Maintenance (PdM): uses sensors to determine if there is a system defect that needs to be fixed before the entire system fails. As the diversification of predictive maintenance continues, we will see systems being adopted across many sectors including aviation and construction.

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): consists of computer systems conducting tasks that have traditionally required human intelligence. The applications of AI in engineering are expansive. A few examples include automated manufacturing, the analysis of large data sets to understand infrastructure demands, and machine learning allowing AI to conduct self-analysis used for problem-solving (7).

These solutions allow engineers to optimize resource flows and improve designs when becoming more efficient. Technology solutions provide real-time data, informing strategic decisions and triggering automated processes related to material sourcing, inventory management, efficient maintenance, refurbishment, recycling, and other facets that support the integration of a circular economy.

Concluding Thoughts

The global circular economy relies heavily on the efforts of those who design, construct, and optimize production and consumption systems. Engineers, equipped with technical and analytical problem-solving abilities, bear the responsibility and opportunity to translate circular economic theory into practice. Through championing restorative design, leveraging data-driven systems, and embedding circularity at scale, engineers are at the forefront of leading this transformative transition.


(1) “Design and the circular economy – deep dive”. Ellen Macarthur Foundation,

Accessed 29 November 2023.

(2) “Materials Journey Mapping”. The Circular Design Guide, Accessed 29 November 2023.

(3) “What is the Circular Economy?”. Go Circular,

Accessed 29 November 2023.

(4) “FAQ on Plastics”. Our World in Data,

use-the-most-plastic, Accessed 29 November 2023.

(5) “Specialists in the solvent-based recycling of engineering plastic waste“. Resolved Technologies, Accessed 29 November 2023.

(6) Baldwin, Eric. “Material Passports: How Embedded Data Can Rethink Architecture and Design”.

Arch Daily,

rethink-architecture-and-design. Accessed 29 November 2023.

(7) “How Artificial Intelligence Has Impacted Engineering.” Interesting Engineering,

engineering. Accessed 29 November 2023.