Circular by design: the 5 principles to make it happen

We continually challenge ourselves to carefully consider and reduce the impact of our DS Smith packaging solutions. We are Redefining Packaging for a Changing World and designing more circular packaging solutions is more essential than ever to be the best partner to our customers and to contribute to a more sustainable society. 

We asked our own packaging design expert, Paul Johnson, about how striving towards a circular economy affects packaging design and how they complement each other.

Briefly, can you explain Circular Economy?

Today’s society has an unsustainable linear consumption pattern (take-make-dispose) which has been predominant across all our production systems. Creating a Circular Economy means that instead of disposing a used product (often called ‘end-of-life’) it can be restored. We are talking about a model in which the industrial system is regenerative by intention but also by design.

Why is design essential for the Circular Economy?

Design is one of the key elements of the Circular Economy. It is at the centre of it. Traditional design (as traditional consumption) is only meant to meet the end user needs. If we think about designing for the circular economy, we need to look much wider than this. We need to consider not only the end user but also the impact of our design has on all angles and stakeholders. We also need to identify and address all the unintended consequences of our design.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently created a model which is based on three simple principles. The first, to ‘design out waste and pollution’. If waste does not exist, products are designed and optimised for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. The second, to ‘keep products and materials in use’. Circularity introduces a strict durability on the components of a product. And, the third, to ‘regenerate natural systems’. The energy required to fuel this cycle should be renewable by nature.

Circular vs linear      

Images: Linear vs Circular – Source Ellen MacArthur Foundation

These principles help guide the design of more circular products, and there are already many inspiring examples of circular designs available for consumers. We can mention few of them:  

G-star recently launched a new range of jeans that put their supply chain design into perspective to meet their sustainability goals on materials source, production and recyclability[1].

G-Star image

Source Image: G-star website

Philipps partnered with architect Thomas Rau to create Circular lightening. The result was a bespoke, intelligent lightening system that fit the requirements of the space, at a manageable price for the customer [2]

Philipps image

Image Source: Philipps

We also have Häagen-Dazs which partnered with Loop by TerraCycle to create a waste-reducing, reusable ice cream pint. Products are delivered directly to consumers in durable packaging, which are then returned to the system for reuse.[3]

Haagen - Dazs

Image Source: Terracycle

There are a many more examples on how companies are partnering to meet the sustainability challenges. It is becoming a stronger trend, and a differentiator for brands.

How does DS Smith develop packaging solutions that are circular by design?

Our designers have created a set of Circular Design Principles that translate the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s circular economy model into packaging solutions. Three strategic points in the waste hierarchy have been taking into consideration to set the path:  

  1. Creation: to optimize the materials and structure by designing with the supply cycle in mind and circularity of the materials (100% regenerative, recyclable or degradable)
  2. Maintenance: to reuse the packaging in the same format, return it for reuse or repurpose
  3. Recovery: to design the packaging to be easy to recycle and/or easy to recover

The new Circular Design Principles will enable our designers to put these key points into practise every day as part of the design process and proactively in the cooperation with customers.

Our Circular Design Principles are:

Protect brands and products:  Packaging protects products, and all the resources invested in them from physical damage & waste (impact drop and vibration), environmental conditions (heat, moisture and dust) and protect people from harm (ergonomic and ease of handling).

Optimise materials & structure: Not using more material than necessary. Optimising the use of packaging materials saves resources and reduces waste, including physical construction (using material only when needed) and material direction

Maintain & Recover Materials: The quality, durability and recyclability are key to keeping packaging products and materials in use for as long as possible, eliminating waste. This means maximizing the use of the fibres and recognising the value beyond the primary function (reusability, collapsibility, recyclability)

Maximise supply efficiencies: Packaging makes supply chains more efficient, from converter to consumer. With an end-to-end approach that considers every step of the way from storage and warehouse optimization (cost and carbon savings) to customer’s factories, packaging lines and optimization of ergonomics.

We find a better way: By living our values we challenge ourselves and our customers to develop more circular packaging solution

DS-Smith-CDP anim V3


How do you intend to bring the principles to life in each designer’s every day work?

As part of the design principles, we aim to find a better way in collaboration with customers. First, we will prioritize making sure every designer knows how to apply the principles and we are developing a joint training with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to achieve this. We will challenge ourselves and our customers to design packaging solutions that are enablers for a more sustainability and circular economy.

Will your customers care?

We know that many of our customers have high sustainability ambitions and we can help them with the packaging solutions. Therefore, we invite every customer that is interested to embed the circular design principles in their packaging designs to get in touch with us! We look forward to cooperating even more closely together for a circular future.