Closing the loop in innovation

Circular economy – a term that is getting more and more attention worldwide in view of dwindling resources. The principle: the more raw materials flow back into the economic cycle after use instead of into the environment, the more efficient and sustainable our economy is. To translate this principle into innovation, the fast-moving consumer goods industry demands innovative solutions. Researchers at Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions (FHCS) have therefore developed a unique approach together with experts from the sustainability consultancy e-hoch-3.

How exactly do we have to design our products so that they are recyclable? A question that posed a problem for the team around FHCS development manager Dr. Norbert Weis: “There are many definitions and models that describe the circular economy and the circularity of products. But we haven’t found one that is practically applicable for our purposes.” This is because these models are primarily theoretical. Norbert continues: “They provide information on the characteristics of a circular economy, but they lack concrete recommendations for action.” To close this gap between theory and practice, Norbert’s team broke new ground.  

Identifying circularity potential

Together with the consulting firm e-hoch-3, researchers at FHCS developed an innovative approach that should make it easier for product developers in the future to evaluate products systematically, objectively and transparently based on scientific principles with regard to their circularity. The core of the approach is the DESIGNED-4-CIRCULARITY tool. The tool’s evaluation algorithm is based on a sophisticated points system. Only when a product meets a certain number of circularity criteria is it considered fit for circulation. The close-meshed methodology immediately reveals concrete potential for improvement. These findings are then incorporated into the innovation process. Norbert: “Such information is particularly important in the early product development phase. Up to 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact depends on factors that we can influence in this phase.” 

Keeping an eye on the entire life cycle

It is particularly helpful for the product developers that the tool breaks down the advantages and disadvantages of a product according to life phases. Norbert explains: “This granularity is extremely important for us. Only in this way can we understand in detail at which point in the life cycle we can start to make a product more sustainable.” This already begins with the selection of raw materials. For example, the tool enables the product developers to identify, even before the design of a plaster bucket begins, which materials and components must be used to design the bucket so that it can be recycled as completely as possible after disposal. “If a bucket is largely made of high-quality recycled materials, such as recycled polypropylene and stainless steel, and no materials interfere with the recycling process, that’s a good sign for us.” If, in addition, the individual components of the bucket – such as the handle and the tub – are easy to separate from each other in the industrial recycling process, there are further plus points. The researchers also consider the service life of the respective product to be a decisive factor. The longer a product is in use, the less material ends up in circulation.


Future-proof thanks to constant further development

Since spring 2022, the tool has been an integral part of the innovation process at FHCS and has already been tested on over sixty products. And it is being continuously developed: “The tool reflects the current state of the art,” says Norbert. “Especially with regard to the recyclability of materials as well as applicable recycling technologies.” But science, legislation and technological possibilities are constantly evolving. “Therefore, we are constantly reviewing our tool to keep it up to date.”  


The approach is part of the FHCS sustainability initiative LOVE IT CLEAN. The initiative recognizes particularly sustainable products and offers consumers guidance at the point of sale regarding the sustainability of a product, based on defined criteria. The products can be recognized on the shelf by the LOVE IT CLEAN label.