Selected by Ellen MacArthur

Should electronics be designed to fail after a defined period of use? Although most people argue ‘no’, many will debate about the role of ‘designed obsolescence’ in many of today’s products. The majority of business models were built for a linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy, so sometimes it’s in the manufacturer’s interest for a product to fail after a certain amount of use. However, there are signs that this business model won’t work long-term. Tweaking design to enable easier repair, upgrade and remanufacture could be appealing for businesses and the wider economy, especially in a world where technology advances so quickly.

We have assembly lines that are rapid, automated, and scalable. What would products, and the systems in which they fit, look like if we put as much thought into the disassembly process? We don’t want a phone that will fall apart in use, but at some point it makes sense to access upgradable parts or to recover the valuable materials inside. There are amazing disassembly technologies that enable products to reach the end of a cycle when and how the manufacturer chooses—I’ve selected this soluble circuit board from the National Physical Laboratory.

Rather than shredding (the current route for most circuit boards), after submerging this circuit board in warm water the bonding ‘positively fails’ by disappearing, thus enabling the component parts to be easily removed to recover the resources into purer, more valuable materials streams. A regenerative circular economy is a framework, powered by renewable energy, and in which biological and technical materials repeatedly cycle. It is catalysing innovation amongst businesses, governments, scientists and students around the world. Some of these innovations will fail, but those that succeed will be crucial in driving economic progress in the 21st century.

About Ellen MacArthur

Ellen MacArthur made yachting history in 2005 when she became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe, and remains the UK’s most successful offshore racer ever, having won the OSTAR, the Route du Rhum and finished second in the Vendée Globe at just 24 years of age. In 2010, having become acutely aware of the finite nature of the resources our linear economy relies upon, she stepped away from professional sailing to launch the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2010, which works with education and business to accelerate the transition to a regenerative circular economy. Ellen MacArthur sits on the European Commission’s Resource Efficiency Platform, and her foundation has published two seminal macro-economic reports. She regularly interacts with European governments and institutions, and received the French Legion of Honour from President Nicolas Sarkozy, three years after having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.