Here's why we should be designing out waste By Lucy Picken

DEFRA defines waste as “any substance or object that the holder discards, or intends or is required to discard”.  This means that when a product has no further use, it is then considered waste. When we put this into perspective, the number of items that end up in landfill as “waste”, may have a further use, but it is seen as more convenient to throw it away. Think of old mobile phones which have been discarded rather than repaired or refurbished.

It is important that we look at how we can change our ways rather than sticking to what we know, so that we can improve our day-to-day sustainability actions.

The waste hierarchy

The principle of the waste hierarchy is to prioritise preferred methods for waste management, with priority given to the most “environmentally friendly” waste management options.

Prevention is given top priority which ultimately refers to not creating waste in the first place. If conditions are ideal, this is the clear best option. If waste must be produced, the waste hierarchy gives priority to re-use, where we keep the waste in circulation while retaining its original purpose and therefore contributing to and creating a circular economy. Following this is recycling, where the waste can be turned / created into a new product and continue its life.

When waste cannot be recycled, recovery is the next option, where value can be extracted from the waste – an example of this can be through energy recovery (creating energy through the burning or pyrolysis of waste). The least preferred option is disposal through landfill.

What benefits does adopting the waste hierarchy bring?

The benefits associated with the waste hierarchy (and a circular economy) include:

  • Reduced carbon emissions.
  • Reduced costs and increased financial savings.
  • Reduced demand for raw materials and therefore a reduced impact on nature and the environment.
  • Increased life and longevity of products.
  • Increased benefit to people including job creation, upskilling and innovation.

How much waste is produced in the UK and how is it disposed of?

The UK generated approximately 222.2 million tonnes of waste in 2018* with the construction, demolition and excavation sectors being the highest generators, accounting for approximately 62% of total UK waste.

The most common waste treatment type in 2018 was ‘recycling and recovery’ which accounted for approximately 50.4% of waste. However, landfill still accounted for 23.6% of waste disposal.

How can we focus more on prevention?

Designing out waste

The focus within most businesses should be to prevent waste. Designing out waste is the most effective action that can be taken to eliminate waste and includes designing for better waste and resource efficiency and designing with the whole life cycle of a product in mind.

When designing a product, we should consider:

  • Materials: Are there better materials that can be used to extend the life of a product? Can less materials be used or can the amount of materials being used be reduced? Can recycled materials be used?
  • Use: What is the use of the product and can it be designed to last longer?
  • Maintenance: Can the product be easily repaired?
  • End of life: What will happen to the product when it is no longer fit for purpose? Can it be re-used, repurposed or recovered?

In the design phase of a project such as construction of a building, materials with lower environmental impacts can be chosen. For example if you were looking to reduce waste this can include avoiding single use plastics in tools and packaging, increasing the longevity of products, tools and plant equipment and reducing surplus procurement and the use of construction materials. Best practice measures during design phases can reduce the overall waste production of a project and a business from the outset.

Products and projects can be designed with a circular economy mindset which involves reducing the need for virgin materials at the beginning, increasing the longevity of an item, allowing for maintenance and repair and designing for deconstruction, re-use and recycling at the end of the products’ life.

Circular economy

This forms the principles of a circular economy, where products are used again and again, for as long as possible in a way that maximises their intended use and minimises waste. Adopting a circular economy approach will allow us to step away from a ‘linear approach’ of take – make – dispose which humans have adopted, which ultimately ends up with products in landfills.

A circular economy is most effective when implemented by all manufacturers and not just individuals and by focusing on this approach, waste can be eliminated before it is produced.

Diagram source: WRAP

Further resources:

  • For further resources about how to reduce waste in your business and adapt a circular economy approach you can access several resources, for free, at the Supply Chain Sustainability School.
  • Find out more about how you can design out waste, in particular construction waste, in Zero Waste Scotland’s guide for project design teams here.
  • Click here for resources on understanding the principles of circular economy

*Note: Where possible, the most up to date data has been taken from DEFRA – in some cases this is 2018.

For more information

Lucy Picken
Consultant Researcher

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