Key Design Principles for Waste Prevention & Systems-Thinking


Planning for waste reduction and prevention looks at the entire cycle of use for a product or package.

These key design principles highlight crucial techniques to prevent and reduce waste at each stage of design and development. Waste is designed out of the system while making decisions on material sourcing, production and sale, envisioning and optimizing use, and finding post-use solutions that promote resource recovery.

The challenges of designing out waste extend beyond the design table, across sectors and supply chains. These Principles can be applied to new products ideas and redesigns, discussed in the boardroom and in the lab. Explore the principles by clicking through the table below, in the Design Principles Infographic or the Principles Checklist and Key Question.

To see these principles in action, visit the Design Portfolio which features Canadian products and packaging that prioritize any number of these principles while also showing what a successful market solution looks like.

Pre-use involves all the steps from cradle (the origin of the materials) to the customers door; manufacturing/production, distribution and sale.
Sourcing resources that are rapidly renewed through natural cycles can reduce dependence on non-renewable materials. This promotes natural production systems that can continue indefinitely (in theory).
It’s important to consider compostability from the beginning. Material chemistry, processing additives, and trace elements (e.g. inks) can affect how well a product or package exceeds standards for compostable certification. These will also affect whether the materials are suitable for another industry’s use (e.g. methane extraction).
Minimize the environmental impact of a product or packaging by reducing the volume and/or weight of materials used. This “dematerialization” can happen both by making the item itself out of less material, and by optimizing the raw material extraction and manufacturing processes to reduce the amount of material used.
Byproducts are the materials created during manufacture that are not used in the final item. Planning the next use of these byproducts by another industry, or internally, can contribute significantly to waste reduction.
Reduce energy use wherever possible. Renewable energy to power extraction and manufacturing reduces reliance on non-renewable sources. Using energy efficient machinery further cuts resource and energy costs.
Reducing weight of a product and its package can considerably reduce energy use during transportation and manufacture; however, reducing the weight should not jeopardize product life span through reduced performance .
A package should protect its contents, and inform and appeal to the consumer without using excess material. Together, the product and package should be strong enough to reach the consumer without damage. The more efficiently it is designed for transport, storage and display, the better it is at reducing waste.
Some manufacturing techniques produce less waste than others. Low waste manufacturing processes consider effluent and byproduct control to limit the spread of waste, minimize materials used (e.g. additive manufacturing) or find uses for by-products (e.g. cascading subtractive).
Transport happens at all stages of the life cycle. Considering relative greenhouse gas emissions from different modes of transportation - rail, ocean, air, road – can be an important step, and an easy one to optimize in the production chain.
Optimizing energy efficiency and encouraging eco-efficient appliances influence how much energy is used once a product or package is in the consumer’s hands.
Consumer preference analysis can determine whether a product or package is actually meeting its intended use; a well-designed product reduces the chance of premature disposal.
Instructions are an opportunity to communicate value to the consumer. If a customer doesn’t fully understand how a product or package works or needs to be maintained, it opens the way for breakage, under-use, and early disposal.
Design to increase product longevity reduces the number and frequency of replacements.
The more prominent, catchy, and clear disposal instructions are, the more likely the consumer will be able to reach the goal of reducing waste after use. Better designs will accommodate regional infrastructure capacity for waste disposal.
If taking the product or package apart is complex, it can limit or prohibit disassembly post-use. Designing with fewer parts and design for intentional disassembly increases re-use, reclamation, and recycling.
Design for direct reuse is more efficient than disassembly or recycling. This means creating a product that can be directly reused at the end of life, without extra processing.
Byproducts, effluent, and even post-use products and packaging can supply another industry’s production line. This is called industrial ecology, or industrial symbiosis, and is arranged apart from consumer/municipal recycling systems.
Designing a product for a specific waste stream (e.g. recycling, composting, methane extraction) is first-stage systems thinking; collaborating with the waste handling industry is the next. Ensuring there is an end market for the product and packaging post use, and that this market is available wherever the item is sold, is integral to optimizing end-of-life.
Designing for recycling is a basic and accessible way to reduce waste after use. The recycling industry collects commonly used materials, processes and sells them into a new system of production. This can be an energy and transport-intensive process, and usually results in downgrading of materials over multiple recycling cycles. Designing for optimal recyclability and up-cycling (recycling to a product of equal or higher value) is a next-level way to approach this principle.
Composting is the recycling of organic materials – biological nutrients to feed rapidly renewable resources. Not all products or packages can or should be designed to be compostable, but some industries are especially suitable for it, such as foodware and food packaging. Designing a compostable product requires careful consideration of materials, certification, and that the conditions required to compost are met in the market area.

These design principles are key to reducing solid waste throughout the lifecycle. The principles can be categorized into three stages of a complete product lifecycle:

Pre-use: involves all the steps from cradle (the origin of the materials) to the customers door; manufacturing/production, distribution and sale.

During Use: the goal of creating a product or package is to fill a need. Effective design will minimize waste during use.

Post Use:  the new paradigm of resource recovery prevents and reduces waste by encouraging all materials to re-enter useful life after their first run of production and use.

  Applying design principles

Waste prevention starts when design begins

External Review Panel

When the Design Portfolio was founded in 2015, the National Zero Waste Council established a distinguished, independent panel of experts to review submitted products and packaging that demonstrate the power of design to prevent and reduce waste. The Portfolio’s 2018-19 External Review Panel includes:

  • Alan Blake, previous Executive Director, PAC NEXT

    Alan Blake is a Retired Executive & Consultant in sustainability, packaging and food waste. Previously, he was the Executive Director, PACNEXT sharing their vision of A World without Packaging Waste with a focus on engaging industry partners to find better end-of-life solutions for all packaging materials. Prior to PACNEXT, Alan worked for Procter & Gamble, based in Cincinnati, where he had 30 years experience in the consumer goods industry, including 20 years of global packaging design and development expertise. He led P&G's global packaging sustainability program with a focus on their 2020 goals and long-term packaging sustainability vision.

    Alan was formerly co-chair of the National Zero Waste Council (NZWC) Product & Packaging working group and served on the NZWC board. He was as a member of the board of The Packaging Association (PAC) where he is now currently a member. He also served on the Sustainable Packaging Coalition Executive Committee and the board of GreenBlue.

    Alan is a Fellow of the Institute of Chemical Engineers (FIChemE), is a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) and a happy grandfather of Everett and Margaret.

  • William F. Hoffman II, Manager, Science Team, UL Environment

    William F. Hoffman III (Bill), Ph.D works on the technical basis for the development of standards and guidance for standards including the green chemistry and circular economy aspects of product environmental performance, validation of claims and product certification. The goal of this work is to provide a strong technical basis to product environmental performance by using a deep scientific analysis of the environmental impact of a product while also assuring companies producing the product are using environmentally progressive manufacturing methods. Recent standards have focused on the Zero Waste, Circular Economy, energy efficiency of plastics molding, medical equipment and advanced power strips. In 2014 Bill was elected a member of the William Henry Merrill Society, a UL Corporate Fellow.

    Formerly Bill was the Director of Sustainability Services for a non-for-profit consulting firm Chicago Manufacturing Center where he was responsible for strategy and deployment of sustainability services. He also managed the Chicago Waste to Profit Network which was responsible for the diversion of 40,000 tons of material from local landfills and 30,000 tons of CO2 saved as a result of those diversions. He also performed a Product Carbon Footprint assessment of craft beer brewery.

    While at Motorola Bill worked on the development of several internal specifications including standards governing the chemical content of products and was heavily involved in external standardization efforts for environmental issues in electronics. These standards often included consideration of chemical risk, trends in regulation, business need, product design requirements and environmental management trends. Bill also developed the core design of an electronics industry component database that was used to manage RoHS compliance of product components and provide analysis of material content for reporting to automotive industry customers. Bill also led the semiconductor packaging team for an early Life Cycle Assessment of an electronics product performed by an industry consortium.

    Bill spent 2 years at Argonne National Laboratory as a Post Doctoral Appointee. While at Argonne he studied the chemistry and formation of transition metal clusters. The reactions of Nickel and Iron with hydrogen and ammonia were the main topics of the research.

    BS Chemistry from Southern Illinois University

    Ph.D. Physical Chemistry from Illinois Institute of Technology

  • Louise St. Pierre, Associate Professor at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design (ECUAD)

    Louise St. Pierre, researches and teaches in sustainable design and medical design at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Co‐author of the internationally recognized Okala Ecological Design curriculum, she initiated Emily Carr University's participation in the international Partnership for Academic Leadership in Sustainability (PALS), and established Canada's first DESIS Lab (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability). St. Pierre was co‐chair of the 2014 International Design Principles and Practices Conference. She has received awards for Industrial Design, Exhibit Design and Ecological Design work from organizations such as the IDSA and The American Center for Design, and has been published in ID Magazine, Print Magazine, Innovation, and Communication Arts. Her work has also been supported by a range of sustainable and ecological design initiatives, including awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Prior to coming to Emily Carr, St. Pierre was Chair of the University of Washington Industrial Design Program. She continues to lecture internationally on sustainable and ecological design.

  • Joe Chiodo, Designer and Inventor of Active Disassembly

    Dr. Joseph Chiodo, Designer and Inventor, Active Disassembly, conducts R&D in eco-design, designing for circular economy systems, product disassembly and dematerialization. He will soon be Head of Product Innovation, Corporate and Social Responsibility at a therapeutic and pharmaceutical company and is writing a series of illustrated reference guidelines for circular economy and eco-design manuals. Throughout his career, he has led cross-continental R&D consortia, and advised numerous academics institutions, companies, and governments including Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Mitsubishi, the EU Commission, the UK Department of Trade and Industry. His work includes numerous patents, technology, and applied science and product inventions. Dr. Joseph Chiodo invented ‘Active Disassembly’ (AD), which employs conventional and smart materials in the design of releasable fasteners and actuators to aid the non-destructive dismantling and selective disassembly of component and product reuse. This process retains the added value of products and their products, fostering upcycling. His work has been published widely, and Dr. Chiodo continues to be the recipient of numerous awards for these achievements. Through his website, he has authored some of the world’s most downloaded ‘Design for’ strategy documents.

  • Dr. Getachew Assefa Wondimagegnehu, Associate Professor of Environmental Design, University of Calgary, and Athena Chair in Life Cycle Assessment

    Dr. Getachew Assefa Wondimagegnehu is an Associate Professor of Environmental Design, Athena Chair in Life Cycle Assessment, and Fellow of Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary. He has a B.Sc. degree in Chemical Engineering, M.Sc. in Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Infrastructure, a Licentiate Degree in Industrial Ecology and a PhD in Industrial Ecology. His Ph.D. research looked at Sustainability Assessment of Technical Systems from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, where he later taught and did further research. He has more than 10 years' experience in teaching and research related to life cycle assessment and industrial ecology in Europe, China and Africa.

  • Sylvain Allard, Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, School of Design, Université du Québec à Montréal

    Bio to come