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  • Writer's pictureJoy Zhang

The Future of Business: a Circular Economy

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Make-use-dispose no more!


By 2020, online retail in the US will be worth an estimated $600 billion, with over 280 million projected parcel shipments per day [1,2]. Will we still be using the antiquated, frustrating, and wasteful single-use packaging we use today?

The materials used in shipping packaging have remained relatively stable since the 1960s [3]. Not only is breaking down cardboard/packaging frustrating to a self-reported 56% of customers, but single-use packaging has transformed the composition of our waste stream [4].

Since 1988, more than half of the world’s plastic trash has been sent to China for recycling. However, China’s 2018 ban on waste imports means that 111 million tons of recyclable waste have been diverted to landfills or impermanent storage[5]. We can no longer rely on out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to address the incredible volume of packages thrown out every day. It's time to break the make-use-dispose path of packaging.

It’s time to break the make-use-dispose path of packaging.

Over the summer of 2018, I worked as the product design/development lead with the startup Airship to develop a shipping container that could be re-used thousands of times, saving thousands of cardboard boxes and plastic linings from the landfill.

The idea driving this product is the radical concept of circular economy, which is, to quote UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme, a regenerative “alternative to a traditional linear economy,” in which the waste from one process becomes resources for the same or another process [6].

Packaging is only one of many industries that generates an unsustainable stream of single-use waste. Other industries include the food industry, which wastes roughly 1/3 of all food generated for human consumption every year. According on the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations, that's 1.3 billion tons annually [7]. In the fashion industry, it's estimated that 73% of clothing is eventually landfilled or incinerated[8].

Considering other energy and material solutions being explored in the sustainability space, circular economy is the future of better businesses in Natural Capitalism, where the environment’s bottom line is the company’s bottom line.


Airship tackled the “re-use” circularity approach out of four R's outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation [9]:

Reuse - product comes back to user

Refurbish - comes back to service provider

Remanufacture - comes back through manufacturing process

Recycle - comes back to materials processor

Each approach comes with its own hurdles. The two biggest barriers to wide adoption of circular economy logistics are infrastructure and habit, two areas with the momentum of about a century.

Although the concept of circular economy has been around since the 1970s, my own journey into building products and services for circular economy began three years ago, during my internship in France. From manufacturing quality to finite element analysis, I have always enjoyed technical challenges in engineering roles. However, I had not considered melding my interest for human-centered design with engineering until my fourth year at Georgia Tech. While interning near Paris for Schlumberger’s Product center, I cofounded my first startup, “baag,” with a circular economy business model. Not only did my startup win 2nd Place at the Spring 2017 Georgia Tech I2P Incubator Showcase, but it also sparked my interest in social design.

My startup "baag," 2017- my first step into circular economy

The momentum from "baag" launched me into other endeavors involving both engineering and design. In the following semester, I led my independent project in Apple as a Manufacturing Design Engineer traveling between the Shanghai manufacturers and Cupertino headquarters. Then, I applied myself to “Catcall Control,” a speculative design game exploring street harassment, and “Airship,” my second circular economy startup aimed at revolutionizing ecommerce shipping. After graduating Georgia Tech with a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in Industrial Design, I knew my journey wouldn’t end there.

Circular economy's vision of the future continues to inspire me to study in interdisciplinary design/engineering programs. I have been accepted to incredible programs in which I plan develop my skillset, such as the Masters in Design Engineering (MDE) at Harvard and the Masters in Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College of London.

Under the tutelage of these multidisciplinary experts, I plan to refine implementation of my own circular economy business in our current socioeconomic, political, and environmental landscape.


As said in the Ellen MacArthur Circular Design Guide, “the scale of what we’re designing has shifted from products, to companies to economic systems.” As such, the shift will be much more than logistical and environmental — it will change the way we live, shop, and understand the world. Zero waste initiatives are already making a dent on our governments, environments, lifestyle.

Several cities in the UK are planning to collaborate with Pluvo, an IDE alum-led circular economy product designed to capture and repurpose air pollution.

Viral social media movements such as “#trashtag” have inspired over 6000 mass litter cleanups in cities and nature, which have been documented online. Social media influencers such as @trashisfortossers has illuminated zero-waste living as an intentional, aesthetic, lifestyle choice to over 296k followers on Instagram.

Businesses such as the Package Free Shop, Loop packaging, and Re-Pack shipping have shown that not only is there consumer demand for circular economy practices, but there is also long-term financial viability.

In order to make my own circular economy an unstoppable movement, I need financial mentorship in order to more accurately valuate services, navigate venture capital, and help develop the financial infrastructure of my business. Having connections with agile startups and companies will be crucial for identifying opportunities to ingrain circular economy into existing and early frameworks.

“the scale of what we’re designing has shifted from products, to companies to economic systems”

I plan to build a network of professionals, such as those found on Toptal, a platform for high caliber freelancers in software, design, project management, and finance. Having the support of Toptal would also enable me to pursue a higher degree in programs are geared towards interdisciplinary design for circular economy. For my long term goal, I plan to gather an informal board of interdisciplinary thinkers to holistically develop the circular economy solution.


The circular economy revolution is happening day by day. You can keep up-to-date with emerging circular economy technologies, communities, and systems. Here are some resources I recommend:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation - the world's most prominent circular economy foundation, founded in 2010 by Dame Ellen MacArthur, a sailor who in 2005 broke the world record in the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. Fantastic source for circular economy research, case studies, and industry news/collaborations.

Circular Design Guide (IDEO x Ellen MacArthur Foundation) - IDEO, the originator of the ubiquitous Design Thinking methodology, collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to create this guide for circular design.

Ubuntoo - a platform for connecting changemakers in the sustainability space to accelerate collaboration, founded by previous executives of the Coca Cola Company.

Closed Loop Partners - Center for Circular Economy - a great resource for research about circular economy, at every step of the process, from food waste recycling to electronics recycling.

And of course, you'll get updates on my circular economy work as well at ;)

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