Principles for Waste Prevention & Systems-Thinking

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

Waste is designed out of the system while making decisions on production and sale, envisioning and optimizing use, and finding post-use solutions that promote resource recovery.

These principles highlight waste prevention at each stage of design and development. The portfolio features Canadian products and packaging that prioritize any number of these principles, while 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

In 2015, the National Zero Waste Council established this distinguished, independent panel of experts to review proposals for the latest entries to its portfolio of products that demonstrate the power of design in preventing and reducing waste:

  • Dr. Getachew Assefa Wondimagegnehu, Associate Professor of Environmental Design, University of Calgary, and Athena Chair in Life Cycle Assessment
  • Alan Blake, Executive Director, PAC NEXT, a consortium of more than 2000 businesses devoted to preventing waste from packaging
  • Dr. Joseph Chiodo, Designer and Inventor of Active Disassembly, which uses smart materials in products and components for easy dismantling and reuse
  • William F. Hoffman II, Manager, Science Team, UL Environment, which develops the technical basis for standards and guidance for green chemistry and product certification
  • Louise St. Pierre, Researcher and Teacher at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University, Vancouver, has international expertise in sustainable design and medical design
  • Sylvain Allard, Faculty of Arts, School of Design, Université du Québec à Montréal