Making things last: ideas for a circular economy

We hosted a public workshop with Zero Waste Scotland to prototype ways to reduce consumption
lapptop showing a mock up of one of the concepts developed - a council run upcycling scheme

Consumption and the climate crisis

Every product and service we use has a carbon cost. That can seem a bit abstract and hard to visualise, so here’s an example: a new laptop has a carbon impact of 175 kg CO2 equivalent – the same as a car trip between Aberdeen and London. If you buy a second hand laptop instead of a new one, you make carbon savings of 74%. 

A circular economy is when we share, rent, repair, reuse and recycle things to make them last as long as possible. This reduces consumption of our planet’s resources.¹

The challenge

Zero Waste Scotland is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to inform policy and motivate people and businesses to support a circular economy. They gave us a brief to deliver a workshop with members of the public to discover and develop practical solutions to make things last. 

We facilitated a four-hour idea generation session with 13 people in Glasgow. The workshop was open to anyone. It was important to get a really broad range of participants to ensure we weren’t just ‘preaching to the choir.’

The goals were to:

  • facilitate a discussion on different aspects of the circular economy
  • support participants to create, develop and prototype ideas
  • provide new insights to take to an expert panel.

Session 1: setting the scene

Understanding the circular economy

12 out of 13 participants had heard of the circular economy before the workshop.

At the beginning of the workshop, only 1 person felt very knowledgeable about the circular economy. Seven felt somewhat knowledgeable and five felt they had very little knowledge. 

Developing personas 

The participants created personas based on themselves including:

  • personal story and home life 
  • likes 
  • dislikes 
  • three things I own
  • three things I rent 
  • three things I reuse 
  • what I would say about the circular economy.

“Circular economy ain’t the new ‘in thing’, it’s basic common sense!”

Quote from a participant

Sketching day in the life journeys

We wanted to make the ideas relevant to people’s lives so they’d want to use them. The participants imagined different stages of their lives including working, studying, shopping and using public transport. They considered how a circular economy could help particular actions in their lives. This made it easier for them to come up with new, sustainable ideas that would be useful and appealing. These included birthdays, holidays and moving house.

Here are just a few of their ideas:

  • Freecycle combined with bulky waste collection service – where the public can ‘intercept’ items like furniture prior to council pick-up if desired.
  • Students in halls of residence leave things they don’t need anymore for the next intake of students
  • Toy, luggage, camping equipment and other ‘library of things’ type sharing services
  • Share an internet connection with neighbours as part of a maintenance fee
  • Introduce a fee to dispose of waste 


an iPad showing a mock-up of one of the concepts - a toy-swapping service called Toymatcher

Creating concepts

We grouped the ideas into different circular economy models:

  • Giving
  • Sharing
  • Recycling
  • Reusing

Then participants worked in pairs to develop their ideas. We provided concept cards with prompts such as:

  • What’s the idea?
  • What circular economy model does it use?
  • What does it look like?
  • How could this concept help?
A photo of two concept cards created by participants. The first has ‘hand me downs beyond the extended family’ written on it and a hand drawn picture of clothes being shared with lots of people. The second shows toys being shared with families who can’t afford new toys.

Taking the ideas forward

Our approach to generating ideas is to encourage prototyping throughout the workshop. By bringing ideas to life, we start to ask more questions and delve deeper into how products and services could be better. It ensures participants really think through their concepts as they generate them.

The participants were full of ideas to make things last.  But the big challenge is creating lasting behaviour change.  As Snook’s own Ness Wright says in a popular blog she wrote at the time “the role of the designer is to make the sustainable thing the best thing”. We need to design products and services that people want to use, rather than just ‘feel they should’. Working with real people that will (or won’t!) adopt them is the way to ensure we design viable, desirable and sustainable products and services. 

Zero waste Scotland continues to offer a range of services, including a circular economy accelerator. 

“The big hairy audacious goal here is to create an incentive to reuse and recycle items. This reduces or even eliminates raw material extraction.”

Quote from a participant