Zero waste element four: Waste is evidence of poor design

Zero waste as a design theory is the most persistent idea with the zero waste community. Designing to avoid waste (and maximize benefit) is the central theme of Cradle-to-Cradle as the authorsargue that the design process must, from the very beginning, rest on the foundation that waste does not exist and that the creation of waste is evidence of poor design (2002, p. 15).

Asserting that all products and processes can, and must be (re)designed to avoid waste, the Zero Waste International Alliance describes, “If a product can’t be reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned, or removed from production.” Designing products to avoid waste also means that even as the perception of an object may change throughout its lifecycle, it is usable, wanted and recyclable at all stages.

The avoidance of waste through design must not only be applied to all products but to all processes as well. This ensures no additional waste is created upstream within the materials economy during extraction, production or distribution as it is during these processes that the bulk of waste is created (Leonard, 2010, p.185). Some estimates have revealed that 3 pounds of waste is generated to produce a toothbrush, 165 pounds for a mobile phone and 3306 pounds for a personal computer (Commission of the European Communities, 2003).

Henry Ford provides an early example of redesigning to eliminate waste, as he was continuously redesigning to make the best use of all materials in their entirety. When this was not possible, Ford created a salvage department to reclaim unusable materials. Notably successful, this department alone earned $19 million in 1930 (Ferrell, 2002). Yet, as the salvage department grew, Ford further reflected, “Why should we have so much to salvage? Are we not giving more attention to reclaiming than to not wasting?” (Ford & Crowther, 1926, p. 117). As Ford understood, design goals should be focused towards avoiding waste, adhering to the principle of highest and best use, rather than simply making good use of discards.

Zero waste elements
1. Waste is anything unusable, unwanted and unrecyclable
2. Zero waste is a visionary goal
3. Waste must be avoided, not minimized or reduced
4. Waste is evidence of poor design
5. Utilize the precautionary principle to eliminate potential toxins
6. Adhere to the principle of highest and best use
7. Recognize and address institutional and ideological barriers

McDonough, William & Branugart, Michael. (2002). Cradle to Cradle. North Point Press. New York.

ZWIA. (n.d.1). Global Principles for Zero Waste Communities. Retrieved from

Leonard, Annie. (2010). The Story of Stuff. Free Press. New York.

Commission of the European Communities. (2003, May 27). Communication from the Commission. Towards a thematic strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste. Brussels. Retrieved from

Ferrell, John. (2002). George Washington Carver and Henry Ford: Pioneers of Zero Waste. Retrieved from

Ford, Henry. Crowther, Samuel. (1926). Great To-Day and Greater Future. Cosimo Inc. New York.



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