Design for Zero Waste

Environmental and social impact locked in at design stage

About 80% of the environmental impact that a product creates is locked in at design stage[1].   Gaining green credentials in design used to be about switching to recycled materials.  Today there is far more awareness of the impact of our throw-away culture.  An amazing 98% of the stuff we buy ends up as ‘waste’ within six months[2].    In the UK we create about 290 million tonnes of waste a year[3], with landfills accounting for about 3% of our carbon emissions as well as causing pollution.  landfillBut this is just the tip of the iceberg as there is far more carbon and impact embedded in the products we use.  Resource extraction has environmental and social impact through mining, transport and processing.  Even seemingly innocuous products like plastic toothbrushes use more than 1.5kg of material in production. A simple A4 piece of white paper requires 10 litres of water to produce2.

Shift to circular economy

It is now clear that our current linear ‘take, make, waste’ business model is not only costly in environmental terms, but for businesses and our economy as a whole.    The Ellen MacArthur Foundation[4] estimates that the EU could save at least £220bn a year if we were to design products in a way that supported resource recovery and eliminated waste streams   Last year’s government review of waste policy[5] deemed the current levels of raw-material usage in the UK manufacturing industry to be unsustainable. Like many developed countries, the UK economy is highly dependent on several at-risk materials, and resource security is a growing concern. Nearly a third of profit warnings issued by FTSE 350 companies in 2011 were attributed to rising resource prices[6].

linear economyTo tackle both the environmental and economic issues, we need to change the whole way that consumer needs are met.   We need to re-design products so that they can be disassembled for reuse, to cut out wasteful disposable one-use products and to eliminate toxics.  This is not simple.  We not only need to build closed-loop manufacture, supply and reuse systems but to change the way people think about what they need and the best way of meeting that need.

For example, more durable high quality washing machines would reduce impacts over product life but would be more expensive.  What’s the solution?   The Ellen MacArthur Foundation4 suggests the answer is to lease.   If washing-machine manufacturers were to lease high-quality machines (capable of more cycles), rather than selling low-quality ones, they could create significant savings for themselves, consumers and the planet. Replacing a machine capable of 2,000 wash cycles with a 10,000-cycle model results in 180kg less steel, a reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions of more than 2.5 tonnes and a fall in the cost per cycle to the consumer from 17 pence to eight pence.

The missing link?

It’s easy to say that moving towards a circular economy requires new systems, new thinking and new behaviours from us all, but how does that map out in practice?  Many of the key components of a circular economy … source separation, door-to-door collections and composting … are emerging in our communities. Repair centres and swap shops are popping up. Companies are developing sustainable policies and cutting waste.  The landfill tax and landfill bans are pushing us to find new solutions. But still we have rubbish.  Lots of it.

“The more we talked to different experts” said Katy Anderson of Cwm Harry, project manager of the Lab, “the more we realised that whole systems of production, packaging and distribution have evolved without proper consideration of what will happen at the end of the line. At first the problem seemed insurmountable, but the penny dropped when we started to talk about creating a feedback loop between what we consume, what we manufacture and what we throw away. And this is just what the People’s Design Lab is going to do.”

[1] WRAP, Designing Out Waste, Accessed at;;

[2] The Great Recovery  RSA Journal 2012


[4] Ellen MacArthur Foundation , 2011, Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition


[6] Ernst and Young (2011): Analysis of profit warnings issued by UK quoted companies.