How often do we see articles about waste, pollution and contamination; here’s a good (bad) one:

We need to consider all the possible ways that we can reduce waste – and that process starts with design. Whether process design, product design, building design… the amount of waste generated is embedded in those first elements of the design and, more importantly the design brief.

One of my favourite examples is the Christmas Cracker. The brief for Christmas Crackers must have gone something like this:

“A product wrapped in non-recyclable packaging that comprises a number of smaller elements that will go into landfill within 10 days of opening”.

Here’s a challenge: for goodness sake – rethink the Christmas cracker. Make a cracker that you can re-use and fill with a hand-made or upcycled gift. Put it in a brown paper bag.


This is a slightly silly example but, just checking the stats and it appears that in 2014 about 300 million crackers were pulled over Christmas, so maybe not so silly after all…

What I’d like to propose today is new law (!) that should be part of every design brief:


Now extrapolation is defined as:

“the action of estimating or concluding something by assuming that existing trends will continue or a current method will remain applicable”.

I would like to take the “continuation of trends” part of that for the new LAW, which is this:

The product or process should be capable of manufacture, use or operation indefinitely with no negative impacts.

Of course the big question is – how do you define “negative impacts”. I deliberately haven’t tried to do that as leaving it open encompasses everything, from environmental impacts to health impacts, economic impacts to quality of life impacts.

Just food for thought…

4 Hot Topics where Design meets The Environment

Thankfully there is now much more emphasis on environmentally positive design and this whole area is constantly evolving. Of course it isn’t just design, but manufacturing, construction, distribution, systems… everything that we do, make and use.

There’s no substitute for the “reduce, re-use, recycle” mantra that is in common use, the most important part is the first – REDUCE.   Our use of energy and resources and the demand to consume more can’t continue, so a reduction in our use – of everything – is essential.

That gives design, environmentally sensitive design, a truly world changing role. There are some interesting areas of development and some where the work is only just beginning:

 Tiny House  Tiny houses

There’s a big movement towards Tiny Houses at the moment. These trailer or container sized homes can provide an effective housing solution where land and/or money is short. Of course, being relatively tiny they are much more able to be fully resourced by integrated renewable energy, water recovery and composting toilet systems.   There are some downsides too – apart from the lack of space; having a larger surface are to volume ratio than conventional properties means that they could be more vulnerable to heat loss or heat gain unless that’s addressed by integral shading or insulation.  Maybe the next step should be to develop earth-sheltered tiny homes? Being small, the usual problems of living underground (access to natural light and escape in the event of fire) could be more easily mitigated.  Maybe the next big thing could be Burrow Living…?

composting-1431541_1920Composting Toilets

Surprisingly the flush toilet has been around since the Bronze Age in various ways. Following significant improvements in technology during the Industrial Revolution it has become a very effective waste disposal system that unfortunately uses one of our most precious resources – water; so the water flushed toilet has become the norm. Composting toilets address this by, as the name suggests, turning human waste into usable compost without additional water. These toilets are currently mainly used for off-grid applications and do need careful management to address the problems that arise from pathogens and contaminants in the waste. There would also be a lot of scalability and infrastructure problems to be addressed if everyone were to install a composting toilet…

There’s a huge design challenge here; design a universally usable human waste disposal system that is as user friendly as the flush toilet – but without water. Answers please – soon…

Distributed Generation

It simply very logical that power should be generated near to where it’s consumed. As renewable energy from solar, wind and geothermal sources become technically more cost effective it’s also becoming easier for that energy to be stored and used at source.

What we do need to be careful of as designers is the total energy cost of doing this. We have to ask ourselves what is the real energy and environmental cost of producing the turbines, generators and batteries, getting them to site, or building them into a product, maintaining them and disposing of them as compared to a more centralised system?

Providing that equation is positive then distributed generation makes sense – only let’s not make any untested assumptions about the true environmental cost.

welder-673559_1920Distributed Manufacturing

Another “Distributed” topic! This is going to be big…

What if, instead of your washing machine being made in Germany, or China and shipped around the world, it was made in your town, or your village?

It could be any product that we need or use, and it’s a great challenge to product designers. We need to reduce the environmental and energy footprint of products, could making them locally do that? As with power generation the energy balance would have to stack up.  It means looking at products in an entirely different way and considering not just what they do, but why they do it.

What is the purpose of a washing machine working in the way it has always done or looking the way it always has? How do we persuade or enable people to wash their clothes less so that the machines can be simpler? It’s a huge area for development and has already started in a small way with small spare parts being manufactured locally by 3D printing; scaling it up will be the challenge.

So the key thing is for us all to start thinking about the environmental impact of design on the whole product lifecycle – whether your product is a house, a washing machine or a widget, and above all, design to REDUCE first!