Background - The Fundamentals of Design for a Circular Economy

The creation of a circular economy will require a fundamental shift in the way that design is practiced. Modern design focuses on innovative solutions that truly fulfill desired customer outcomes while optimizing cost. product afterlives are not part of the equation. In a circular economy, complete product life cycles are not must also become part of the equation.


Academic Program

As described by Bocken1 and Den Hollander2, designing products for circularity includes two broad strategies that reflect circularity's looping nature: (1) design that slows resource loops, and (2) design that closes resource loops. Students will learn these fundamentals in the newly developed courses - Design for Circular Economy and Capstone Course on Design for Circular Economy – and will apply these concepts as a part of their research.

True circular economy design requires a transformational shift in the lens through which students and faculty view design in a global context. This program will inspire students to become the next generation of leaders in circular economy design in the U.S. Our program goals are:

  • Developing and implementing learning and training innovations: This novel training program integrates existing resources on campus with new courses and programs focusing on CE design for faculty and trainees to create a new graduate certificate program in CE.
  • Creating a circular economy innovation experience: An immersive development experience translates fundamental research to circular economy solutions.
  • Fostering a diverse and inclusive training environment while preparing trainees for multiple career pathways with internships: The program builds on and extends University of Pittsburgh’s NSF STRIVE program for URM PhD students to foster and strengthen a diverse and inclusive academic environment. It provides students with various career pathways, including robust internships with leading industries embracing CE.
  • Conducting convergent research that addresses pressing societal needs: As the first U.S. research and training program dedicated to designing circular economy solutions that address societal issues linked to spiraling global wast, the program will utilize complexity leadership theory, including network analysis, to understand and develop recommendations on how to effectively conduct convergent research.

University of Pittsburgh faculty and staff will be supplemented with potential engagement from Covestro LLC employees, customers, or other key value chain stakeholders in the form of guest lectures, internships, and collaboration on product design. Advanced research laboratory facilities at Covestro, along with Covestro PhDs and Research Fellows, will play key roles in the academic programming, research activities, and outreach of the Program.

Slowing resource loops, i.e., keeping products in use for extended periods of time, further encompasses a priori design for long life as well as designing for product-life extension. Design for long life includes creating more robust products with longer viable service lives, while also creating designs to which consumers become emotionally attached.

Closing resource loops involves either creating products and components that can be easily and safely absorbed by the biosphere or creating items that, while they cannot be released to the ecosystem, can be easily recycled to high value uses. As such, closing loops involves: (a) Design for a biological cycle, (b) Design for a technological cycle, (c) Design for disassembly and reassembly (in the context that one may need to separate materials that are associated with biological and technological cycles)

Design for a biological cycle encompasses the entire range of biodegradable products, from solvents to soaps to materials to electronic components. In the ideal case, the raw materials for these designs should be biologically derived, and their degradation products benign. Design for a technological cycle requires that the components employed can be collected, disassembled, and then reused in an application that maintains value, meaning without downcycling. Bocken categorizes recycling process from primary (moving constituents into applications of equal value) to secondary (traditional downcycling) to tertiary (recovery of chemical building blocks which can then be used as high value raw materials) and quaternary recycling (combustion for energy recovery) and notes that a true circular economy relies on primary and tertiary recycling to create closed loops. Clearly, multi-material products must be designed so that they can be disassembled (and reassembled) to effectively close loops.

While central to circular design, these concepts (except for design for durability) are not typically part of the conventional design paradigm. As such, our students will encounter these fundamental precepts during the coursework, while the research projects will attack some of the fundamental science needed to support true circular design. Below we describe some major research themes and potential trainee projects.

National & International Recruitment for the Academic Program

Recruitment of PhD students will continually seek to identify and attract the world’s best and brightest across a variety of technical fields. Our goal is to develop an innovation home for PhD candidates who will exit the program and transform the world. In creating such a cohort, DECO leadership will seek to recruit a broad, diverse, and representative set of students from around the world.

Critical to the Covestro Circular Economy Program's recruitment and success is the University of Pittsburgh’s STRIVE program (Success, Transition, Representation, Innovation, Vision, and Education). STRIVE aims to improve the success of underrepresented students in doctoral engineering programs through faculty-student interaction Dr. Melissa Bilec, Executive Director of the Covestro-Pitt Circular Economy Program, is part of the STRIVE leadership team. The research team is focusing on improving faculty engagement with students, advancing their awareness of the barriers and problems the students encounter, and developing a shared vision regarding the success of under-represented graduate students with aim of producing a diverse and equitable academic environment.

Recruitment efforts will begin before the start of the Program and will specifically target students who are interested in CE. 

Mentoring and Retention: Our STRIVE program aims to improve the success of underrepresented students in doctoral engineering programs through faculty-student interaction. The five-year program allows our faculty to adopt strategies and practices employed by the other institutions, such as the UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program.

In addition to incorporating the STRIVE strategies and programs at Pitt, Covestro-Pitt Circular Economy Program leadership will employ our current recruitment, mentoring and retention programs that have a particular emphasis on broadening participation of student for the program, as follows:

  • Partnerships/ Visits to Minority Serving Institutions (Recruitment): Attend professional society meetings, meet with minority organizations, and routinely visits
    minority serving institutions, often with a department chair, to disseminate information about the Swanson School of engineering, and to interview and identify promising students. Partnerships with HBCUs help us to identify qualified URMs. Exceptionally gifted juniors and seniors from these institutions interested in graduate studies will be invited to campus.
  • National Name Exchange (Recruitment): The University of Pittsburgh is one of 55 nationally known universities that annually collect and exchange the names of talented URMs at each institution across the country to increase awareness of graduate opportunities to URMs and the number of qualified URMs accepted into graduate school. Philippa Carter manages Pitt’s Name Exchange.
  • Pitt Undergraduate Research Programs (Mentoring/Retention): MCSI and Pitt’s undergraduate research programs provide early opportunities to identify, engage and mentor aspiring URM students.
  • Hot Metal Bridge Program (Mentoring/Retention): Established in 2010 to address URM representation in STEM at Pitt, this internally funded Pitt program recruits talented URMs from advanced undergraduate programs, provides them a post-baccalaureate traineeship with a stipend and pairs them with faculty and student mentors with the goal of preparing them for admission into a PhD program. Eighty percent of trainees have continued to graduate school, with one-third matriculating at Pitt
  • Graduate Mentoring Program (Mentoring/Retention): Support departments in monitoring the academic performance of URM graduate students. Each term, we will meet with individual students to assess skill deficiencies and discuss barriers.

1Bocken, N.M.P., de Pauw, I., Bakker, C., van der Grintern, B., Product design and business model strategies for a circular economy. J. Industr. Prod. Eng., 2016. 33(5): p. 308-320.
2Hollander, M.C.B., C. A.; Hultink, E. J., Product Design in a Circular Economy: Development of a Typology of Key Concepts and Terms. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2017. 21(3): p. 517–525.