Business, Design

Circularity is the Future of Sustainable Interiors

An interior construction company in Japan uses salvaged materials to construct furniture encircling an old filing cabinet centrepiece made from surplus wood and old filing cabinets. Its exemplary application of circular design principles earned the company [YN: if we must name, it is Semba Corporation] a win in the 2022 Dezeen Awards for sustainable interiors and the bragging rights of 99% waste recycling and 80% furniture reuse.

The concept of circularity, which involves eliminating waste from the system and recovering resources at the end of a product’s life, has become the gold standard in sustainable interior design, and it is no surprise. Fast fashion is well known, but what about fast furniture and its environmental impact? International reports from Hong Kong to the US and EU have highlighted the importance of rapid furniture disposal in the mounting waste problem.

You say furniture waste, we say design challenge

In the corporate realm, relocation and shifting modalities of work have accelerated the furniture dumping fiasco. The idea is not for corporations to cling onto furniture and resist the currents of change at their own expense, but to adopt a circular mindset and for agents of change to bring new design solutions to the forefront.

Indeed, in the words of architect Bjarke Ingels: “Sustainability can’t be like some sort of a moral sacrifice… it has to be a design challenge.” So, how can we answer the design challenge of minimising furniture waste?

Think outside the cubicle: open concept and modular furniture

A key way to keep furniture waste to a minimum is to incorporate flexibility into the very layout of your office and furnish it with elements that can easily be repurposed.

ID Integrated has been at the forefront of designing flexible, open office spaces. Modular design elements such as open seating areas, flexible desk stations, and meeting pods thoughtfully placed in open office spaces can be combined, taken apart, moved, repurposed, and re-integrated into new spatial set-ups as needed.

Instead of partitioned cubicles affixed to the particular office layout and destined for the dumps when offices are due for redesign, modular furniture and open concepts can follow businesses as their spatial needs evolve.

Old is gold: upcycling

With the right ideas, successful brand design can go hand in hand to realise the goal of “in with the old, in with the new”. At the Campari office, for example, we turned old wine and beverage bottles into exquisite pieces in a wine gallery feature.

This is just the tip of the trash-to-treasure iceberg. If a successful design embodies the brand’s DNA while also building recognition both within and beyond the organisation, then using old products is the way to go. Take a “has-been” product that once was the shining star of your brand, be it an appliance or beauty product, and make it into an even bigger statement piece that transcends time to remind staff and visitors to your office about your brand values and story.

A big part of circular design is functional. This is why we have championed the idea of giving old furniture new life. At Mullenlowe, we helped refresh and repurpose 60% of their old furniture but also the existing carpet left by the previous tenant, so that they can continue to serve their everyday office needs, but better than before.

As such, solutions aren’t always easy to find due to the “take, make, waste” economy. Undoubtedly, the office interior is one of the most important aspects of the linear economy. Faced with the dual challenge of sustainability and shifting modalities of work, the imperative has fallen on creative designers to bring new and creative ideas. This will prolong the product life cycle, all while creating office spaces that work for you.

Data sharing on fast furniture

Furniture is notoriously difficult to recycle, comprising a mix of materials and chemicals that often include un-recyclable or non-biodegradable components. Often, discarded furniture would go straight to landfills – if not for the intervention of circular design experts, upcycling agents, or the secondhand furniture market.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that furniture waste amounted to 12.1 million tons in 2018, with some 80% going to landfills. In 2018, the European Federation of Furniture Manufacturers (UEA) estimated that furniture waste accounted for over 4% of municipal solid waste in the EU. Waste arising from commercial sources is said to contribute some 18% of total furniture waste generation across the sector. Total annual furniture waste was placed at a whopping 10.78 million tonnes, with 80% to 90% of EU furniture waste incinerated or sent to landfill, and only about 10% recycled.

While data in Asia is scarce, rising landfills are not limited to the US and UK. Singapore’s lone landfill (Semakau Landfill) is projected to hit capacity by 2035. Circularity is being promoted with ever greater urgency as a waste generation grows in tandem with the pickup of economic activity as the Covid-19 situation progresses, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA). NEA estimated that about 6.94 million tonnes of solid waste was generated in 2021.