Designers and manufacturers can design and make sustainable products and packaging that are durable and non-toxic, use less materials and resources during its entire life cycle, and can be reused, repaired or recycled.
To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things – products, packaging and systems – from the very beginning in the understanding that waste does not exist. – Jonathon Porritt, Capitalism as if the World Matters
Several sustainable design and product principles have been developed over the years and we look at some of them below:
- Cradle to Cradle
- Design for the Environment
- Life Cycle Assessment
- The Natural Step
- Other Resources
If you’re a designer or manufacturer, learn and adopt these sustainable principles in your product or packaging.
Biomimicry is a new science and design principle developed by Janine Benyus, the author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and the President of The Biomimicry Institute. Biomimicry is about learning from nature and studying what works in nature, and then imitating these best ideas, designs and processes to solve our problems.
Learn more from this 24-min TED video by Janine Benyus on the 12 sustainable design ideas from nature.
You can also check out Ask Nature, a free open source database by The Biomimicry Institute, where architects, designers and engineers can search for nature’s best solutions and bio-inspired products, and network with the biomimicry community.
2. Cradle to Cradle
William McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote the book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which popularised the new cradle to cradle sustainable design principles. In their explanation:
Cradle to Cradle Design offers a clear alternative, a framework in which the safe, regenerative productivity of nature provides models for wholly positive human designs. Working from this perspective, we do not aim to be less bad. Instead, our design assignment is to create a world of interdependent natural and human systems powered by the sun in which safe, healthful materials flow in regenerative cycles, elegantly and equitably deployed for the benefit of all.
Within this framework, every material is designed to provide a wide spectrum of renewable assets. After a useful life as a healthful product, cradle-to-cradle materials are designed to replenish the earth with safe, fecund matter or to supply high quality technical resources for the next generation of products. When materials and products are created specifically for use within these closed-loop cycles – the flow of biological materials through nature’s nutrient cycles and the circulation of industrial materials from producer to customer to producer – businesses can realize both enormous short-term growth and enduring prosperity. As well, we can begin to re-design the very foundations of industry, creating systems that purify air, land and water; use current solar income and generate no toxic waste; use only safe, healthful, regenerative materials; and whose benefits enhance all life.
Learn more about Cradle to Cradle design from the MBDC website or William McDonough’s website. You can also learn about the wisdom of designing Cradle to Cradle from this 20-min TED video by William McDonough.
3. Design for the Environment
Design for the Environment (DfE) is simply an approach taken by companies to make business decisions that consider environmental impacts. Some call it eco-design or just green design.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) started the Design for the Environment Program in the 1990s and has been working with industries to integrate health and environmental considerations in business decisions. Learn more from the DfE website.
4. Life Cycle Assessment
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a methodological tool that applies life cycle thinking and assesses the environmental aspects and impacts associated with a product, process, or service. LCA estimates the environmental impacts resulting from all stages in the product life cycle, from raw material extraction, production, transportation, usage to disposal.
Learn more about LCA from the European Platform on LCA and the USEPA website, or about the Life Cycle Initiative from the UNEP website. If you wish to apply life cycle assessment for your product and need help, check with the Sustainable Manufacturing Centre at the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech).
5. The Natural Step
The Natural Step Framework is developed by Dr Karl-Henrik Robèrt and is a strategic decision making and comprehensive planning model, based on systems thinking and using the four basic sustainability principles to guide individuals and organisations. The Four Principles of Sustainability state that:
To become a sustainable society we must…
1. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)
2. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT )
3. eliminate our contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests and paving over critical wildlife habitat); and
4. eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).
One company that adopted The Natural Step (TNS) was IKEA. In 1990, IKEA adopted The Natural Step as the basis of its environmental policy and plan, and used the TNS principles to change its products and services. More info and resources about The Natural Step can be found at The Natural Step website.
6. Other Resources
- Design, GreenBiz.com
- Designing out Waste, WRAP
- Design for Sustainability
- Inhabitat – Design For a Better World
- The Designers Accord
We love MUJI products for their simplicity – Simple is Beautiful. The design of MUJI products is natural and simple. The manufacturing processes of MUJI products are simplified and unnecessary steps are eliminated. MUJI product packaging are also simple, plain and uniform. All these steps help to reduce waste and costs, giving consumers good quality products at lower prices. If retailers learn from MUJI and simplify their materials, processes and packaging, imagine the waste that can be eliminated.
In modern society, overconsumption and wastage of resources seem to be a norm. We buy more than what is necessary, use and waste more material, water and electricity than needed, and throw away more waste.
We tend to change our material belongings constantly to suit the current fashion and trend, leaving behind a trail of “old-fashioned” waste. These “old” waste are thrown away although some could still be in good condition.
The Idea of Sufficiency
It is time to ask ourselves whether we should practise “sufficiency” in our consumption. Sufficiency means that as we do more and more of an activity, there will be a state when we feel a sense of enough and too much, and we know it’s time to stop.
In other words: Buy only what we need; Use only what we need; Take only what we need. As Paul Ekins explains in the book, Capitalism as if the World Matters:
In a society devoted to ever-greater consumption, it is hard not to identify sufficiency with notions of sacrifice, of ‘doing without’ or ‘giving things up’. Such identifications are, however, misplaced. Certainly, sufficiency implies relatively modest consumption and simplicity in personal lifestyle. But these are not motivated by abstract aestheticism or self-denial, but arise from a perception that sufficiency in consumption permits a greater emphasis to be placed on other aspects of human experience, which are actually more personally rewarding and fulfilling than consumption.
We have to recognise that there are other things to pursue in life besides buying, consuming and discarding; things that are more important like relationships, health and happiness. Don’t end up like the rats in this video:
Always remember the idea of sufficiency and ask yourself whether you need to buy or use something in the first place. Buy only what you need. Use only what you need.
Some examples of thinking in terms of sufficiency:
Don’t be a Slave to the Latest Fashion
We have a choice. We can choose what we want. There is no need to follow the latest fashion and keep on changing our clothing and accessories to suit the new style.
Fashion changes frequently so that companies can keep on selling new things to consumers. Don’t be a slave to the latest fashion and to the companies that promote excessive consumerism and false obsolescence.
Be clear with what you want and stick to your style regardless of the ever changing fashion trends. If you change less, you buy less. And if you buy, we recommend clothing and accessories that are classic and simple in style. We like simplicity, they never go out of fashion.
Avoid Changing Your Handphone Frequently
In 2006, the number of handphone subscribers in Singapore is about 4.6 million, which means that each person in Singapore probably own at least one handphone. The rate of change of handphones is fast and we know of people who change their handphones every few months so that they can have the latest model with better functions and features. If each person change their handphone once a year, we would end up with 4.6 million old handphones that are usually sold as secondhand phones locally and overseas, or disposed of.
There is no need to keep changing your handphone to the latest model if your current one is still working fine. The frequent changing of handphones results in more resources being used to make new ones and also increases the disposal of the old handphones.
In Singapore, paper is one of the most common type of waste and about 1.26 million tonnes of paper waste was generated in 2013. We need to eliminate the excessive use of paper and try to reduce paper waste where possible.
Cutting down on our use of paper will lead to a smaller environmental impact from paper production, such as less energy and water consumption, less pollution, and less destruction of forests and their biodiversity.
There are many ways to reduce the use of paper in the office and at home. Here’s a few examples:
- Avoid Printing Emails and Web Pages
- Use Email Instead of Fax
- Print and Photocopy on Both Sides of the Paper
- Switch to Electronic Invoicing
- Reuse Old Envelopes for Internal Mail
- Go Paperless with Electronic Bills and Statements
- Avoid Printing ATM Receipts
- Reduce Junk Mail
- Submit Your Annual Income Tax Return Online
- Use Cloth for Cleaning Instead of Paper Towels
- Read Newspapers and Magazines Online
1. Avoid Printing Emails and Web Pages
Avoid printing emails and web pages unnecessarily. Instead, archive your emails and bookmark your web pages for easy reference. If you need to print web pages often, you can adjust your page and printer settings to minimise the number of pages before printing, for example, reducing the margins for your page or printing 2 pages on a piece of paper. You can also explore the use of software such as GreenPrint to reduce the printing of unwanted pages and images.
Have you come across an email signature with a tree logo and the words “Please consider the environment before printing this email”? This is a good way to remind the email recipient to think first before printing. Learn more about this signature and how to add it to your email.
2. Use Email Instead of Fax
Use email instead of fax for sending documents. Just attach the document as a word or pdf file in your email. Or you can scan the document and attach it in your email. If you really need to use the fax, avoid using a cover page. Read more
Disposable items such as plastic bags, plastic cutlery and batteries are thrown away after a single use. This is a waste of resources and creates unnecessary wastage. We should try to avoid buying and using disposable items if possible.
Here’s what you can do:
- Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) to Reduce the Use of Plastic Bags
- Avoid Disposable Plastic Containers and Cutlery
- Avoid Using Individually Packaged Disposable Items
- Use Rechargeable Batteries Instead of Normal Single-Use Batteries
- Skip Gift Wrapping
1. Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) to Reduce the Use of Plastic Bags
In Singapore, we use about 3 billion plastic bags a year. Plastic bags are commonly used to bag our waste for disposal. However, excess plastic bags are thrown away as waste and are also often thrown away as litter, dirtying our streets and clogging up the drains.
Plastic bags that end up in the sea may also pose a threat to marine lives. In addition, plastic bags are made from oil, thus using up this non-renewable resource.
Support the Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) campaign and bring your own reusable bags for shopping and help to reduce the need for excessive plastic bags. Avoid taking excessive plastic bags and if you have excess plastic bags, consider reusing them for bagging refuse or giving them to others.
2. Avoid Disposable Plastic Containers and Cutlery
Make an effort to have your food at the food outlets or restaurants, and avoid takeaways using disposable plastic containers. If you often need to buy food back to your home or office, consider bringing your own reusable container, cutlery and bag instead of taking the disposable ones.
In addition, you can bring your own reusable cutlery to avoid using disposable cutlery when eating at food outlets and restaurants.
If you are organising an event, use non-disposable plates, cups and cutlery for your catered food. Ask the caterer to use chinaware or glassware instead. This helps to reduce the amount of waste from paper or plastic disposables.
3. Avoid Using Individually Packaged Disposable Items
When serving hot beverages, avoid the use of disposable stirrers and individually packaged sugar, milk and creamer. Use a spoon for stirring and place the sugar and milk in reusable containers or jugs.
Avoid using individual sachets of chilli or ketchup sauce. Store the sauce in reusable bottles and dispensers instead.
Avoid disposable bottled water or plastic cups in your office or event. You can switch to reusable water bottles and reusable plastic, ceramic or glass cups for water.
4. Use Rechargeable Batteries Instead of Normal Single-Use Batteries
Rechargeable AA and AAA batteries can be reused many times and this will help to reduce the disposal of normal single-use batteries. If 5% of the local population switched to rechargeable batteries, this would prevent the annual disposal of more one million single-use batteries (assuming each person throws away five batteries a year).
Switching to rechargeable batteries also helps to save money. A pack of four AA alkaline batteries costs about $5 and can be used once, whereas a pack of four rechargeable batteries and a charger costs about $50, and the batteries can be reused about 500 to 1,000 times. If you switch to rechargeable batteries and reuse them 10 times, the purchase cost between normal and rechargeable batteries would breakeven.
5. Skip Gift Wrapping
Consider skipping gift wrapping and put the gift in a reusable bag instead. Excessive paper wrappers are a hassle and usually end up as waste. What is inside is more important.
Some products come with unnecessary plastic or paper packaging for aesthetic and advertising purposes, and these packaging usually end up as waste. You can choose products with less or no packaging, thus reducing the packaging wastage and cost.
The Problem of Packaging Waste
As more companies compete to advertise and promote their brands, they use all forms of media and excessive packaging. These unnecessary advertising and wasteful packaging are used to attract consumers to buy and use more. As Daniel Imhoff quotes in his book, Paper or Plastic:
Waste could result from a competitive “arms race” in which one company adopts larger, more elaborate packaging solely to compete with another company’s larger, more elaborate packaging, in the struggle to win the attention of consumers. Producers could misinterpret consumer acceptance of increasing levels of packaging as evidence of a desire for even more.
Excessive packaging often end up as waste. If the advertising campaigns are successful, more consumers buy and this result in more waste generated – the waste cycle continues.
What Can I Do?
Make a conscious effort to choose products with less packaging. By buying and supporting products with less packaging, you are sending a signal to the companies on the increasing demand of products that have minimal packaging.
Vote. And I don’t mean voting at a voting booth. Anybody of any age can vote because you vote every day that you pay for something. Every time you lay money down on the counter to buy something, you are saying that I approve of this object. I approve of how it was made, the materials that are in it, and what’s going to happen to it when I no longer need it and throw away. – Gloria Flora, Director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, in the film The 11th Hour
Can you influence companies to reduce their excessive packaging? Nowadays, companies have become increasingly aware of their corporate responsibility to the community and the environment. As a consumer, you can make use of this increasing awareness to feedback or remind companies to be more environmentally friendly and minimise their packaging waste.
Support the Singapore Packaging Agreement
You can support companies that are signatories to the Singapore Packaging Agreement. The voluntary Singapore Packaging Agreement came into effect on 1 July 2007 and companies that signed the Agreement will commit to reduce their packaging waste. Learn more about the Agreement and signatories from this NEA website. Show your support for the companies by buying their products.
If your company is interested in reducing packaging waste, you can also consider participating in the Agreement or seek help from the NEA.