CEF Spotlight

Bridging the Gap between Design and Recyclability

By Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of Waste Management Carpenter, Tom
Sustainability Services 

Over the last few years, sustainability efforts in product and packaging design have led to some significant reductions in the environmental footprint of consumer goods. Using strategies like light-weighting, we’re seeing products with smaller environmental impacts designed to be less resource intensive. As members of the sustainability community, we see this as a very good thing.

While we’ve seen improvements to environmental impacts on one hand, I still see countless examples of products that are virtually impossible to recycle because of choices made in the design. Too often we don’t see the effort to design a product that is both sustainable and recyclable. The fact of the matter is that from the public’s point of view, it’s risky to tout your product’s environmental attributes if the product is not recyclable. They want to see a reduction of environmental impact and an opportunity to recycle rather than dispose of the product after use. To help customers meet these two goals, we’re using a combination of education, material assessment and infrastructure expertise. We call this process Design with Intent.

Design with Intent takes the practical recyclability of products into consideration in the design phase. The approach helps material resources to be recovered and returned to the value chain after a product’s intended use by being mindful of material selection, ease of recyclability for the consumer, and ease of implementation with the recycling infrastructure’s capabilities.

Watch a short video that explains how this can be achieved:

Products that are intentionally designed with recyclability and their next life in mind can

  • Inspire brand trust and loyalty

  • Help companies make recyclability claims with confidence, minimizing the potential risk of false claims

  • Differentiate products in the marketplace

  • Have a positive net impact on recycling success worldwide, all from a consumer, business, and industry point of view

Many companies rely on a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to inform their design efforts when it comes to designing a sustainable product. Unfortunately, they often cut off the scope of the LCA when the product leaves their hands, ignoring the potential for recycling after the consumer has used their product. While traditional LCA is an important part of sustainable design, it won’t tell the whole story unless it goes beyond the manufacturer’s door and it’s determined whether the product is recyclable. Designers that we speak with often operate under the assumption that if they use a recyclable material, that is the end of the story — the item will be recycled. This is not always the case: Recyclability often suffers at the hands of design choices that alter physical or chemical attributes of an otherwise recyclable material, rendering it incompatible with the capabilities of the recycling infrastructure and ultimately leading to disposal in the landfill.

So how do we address this issue? There are three key components to our Design with Intent approach:


Understanding the practical capabilities of recycling infrastructure is critical to designing a recyclable product. The recycling infrastructure, including consumer recycling practices, collection equipment and protocols and processing within the recycling facility, is a complex, highly technical system that often requires a great deal of technical expertise to navigate. Through strategy and education sessions, we help design and engineering teams understand the capabilities of the recycling infrastructure and the commodity markets which can actually use the material. Lack of demand for recycled material can significantly impact success or the costs of a recycling effort.

Research and Assessment

By leveraging our Material Recovery Facility (MRF) assets, recycling experts and relationships with material end users nationwide, we provide manufacturers with unique insight into a product’s recyclability. I like to think of us as one big R&D facility:

  • Our MRFs are our laboratories where we can run products through the system to identify how they behave at traditional recycling collection and sortation operations, thus identifying specific challenges.

  • Our recycling experts are our material scientists who understand specifically what qualities materials must have in order to be captured and recycled.

  • Our material end users are our chemists and provide feedback on how products behave within their process.


Because we go beyond theoretical research and actually observe how products behave in the recycling infrastructure, we are in a unique position to offer direct and specific feedback based on observations of performance. This helps eliminate a lot of the guesswork when it comes to whether or not a company can make a product recyclability claim. Based on this feedback, we’ve educated design and engineering teams, helped companies make design strategy improvements, created accurate customer messaging and, in general, informed the design process of many next-generation products.

A Balanced Approach

We understand that all products need to meet certain performance requirements, and some of these requirements make recycling difficult or impossible. So we promote supplementing traditional LCA with the Design with Intent philosophy. By incorporating both Design with Intent and LCA, we believe that companies will have the information available to make informed, sustainable decisions about product and packaging design, thereby bridging the gap between product design and product recyclability.

By adopting Design with Intent as a philosophy, designers and manufacturers will have the chance to do big things. We are optimistic that one day we’ll be able to take recyclable products for granted, and that everything will be recycled. Let’s work together to make that day happen soon.

Tom Carpenter is the executive director of Waste Management Global Sustainability Services and provides over 21 years of environmental and business management experience. Through the pioneering of a sustainability consultancy within Waste Management, his speaking engagements and sustainability strategy expertise, Carpenter has helped business leaders leverage sustainability as a platform for innovation in developing their products and services while creating long-term value. Sustainability Services provides senior-level advisory services and sustainable innovation practices to organizations, communities, and corporations. Using Cradle-to-Cradle and the practical knowledge of recoverability within material management, the team is dynamically transforming every supply chain.

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