Case Study Waste Audit

Working to make change in ‘Waste Age’

Discover how the Design Museum is learning to cut the environmental cost of exhibitions.

Opened from 23 October 2021, the exhibition Waste Age: What Can Design Do? calls for an end to our era of peak waste by confronting the impact of disposable culture and showcasing the designers reimagining our relationship to materials.

The design industry helped to create a throwaway world, but it can – and must – find alternatives. So, while Waste Age asks what design can do, it also calls for the Design Museum to explore how to reduce waste when creating an exhibition.

In order to make the best impact possible, we appointed exhibition advisors URGE to help reduce the environmental impact of the Waste Age exhibition. By sharing learnings, the Design Museum and URGE hope to help other organisations and designers challenge and transform their practices.

The challenge

While the Design Museum uses renewable energy, the museum is conscious of the carbon footprint that exhibitions produce beyond the walls in Kensington. Through Waste Age: What Can Design Do, the Design Museum set out to understand the resource use, production methods, supply chains, and lifecycles of all exhibits and materials.

With a satellite project from the Waste Age exhibition travelling to the Leaders Lounge of COP26 in Glasgow, it is vital to be transparent about the impact of temporary events and show policymakers that there are effective ways to make improvements.

To make sure the Design Museum was genuinely challenging existing methods, an advisory panel of leading experts were appointed alongside URGE to guide the development of the exhibition, and the museum teams also partnered with designers dedicated to ecological practices.

"We asked specialists to monitor our process, helping us to make change throughout." – Gemma Curtin, Waste Age Curator, the Design Museum

Analysing Impact

URGE are currently carrying out an in-depth environmental audit of Waste Age, covering before, during and after the exhibition. URGE started their process by modelling the show’s expected impact, working with our teams to reduce it from the start.

"People often have beliefs about sustainability which the data will show to not be true. We’re trying to help designers use this data in their work". – Sophie Thomas, URGE

The pre-exhibition phase of URGE’s review combined interviews, observation, and data analysis, with the group setting up digital carbon trackers and working with contributors to gather information first-hand from challenging and complex supply chains.

Initial findings are displayed as part of Waste Age, giving audiences an insight into surprising impacts such as the stainless-steel screws used in installation, which accounted for about 20% of the exhibition’s impact so far.

The audit shows that while we made vast savings in expected waste, carbon emissions, and resource use, Waste Age’s impact was equivalent to ten tons of CO2 at opening. Following its close, URGE’s final analysis will take into account the exhibition’s human impacts, such as attitude and behaviour changes.

Design Solutions

"We were interested in bringing sustainable practices into an arts sector which usually builds wasteful temporary spaces without thinking about disassembly or the life cycle of materials". – George Massoud, Material Cultures

Waste Age’s 3D designers, Material Cultures, developed lower-impact structures for the exhibition, using these key approaches:

Reusing elements of previous exhibitions: a central wall and plinths from Charlotte Perriand, a previous exhibition, were repurposed for Waste Age.

Constructing rooms from biodegradable materials: wool, locally-sourced clay, and engineered timber also have low embodied carbon.

Designing structures to be deconstructed and fully reused: a wall of unfired Adobe bricks with no fittings will be disassembled and returned for reuse

The Design Museum’s construction and installation teams went through a learning process of working with unfamiliar materials, such as walls of self-weighted bricks, which posed new challenges.

Key Findings

BY EXHIBITION OPENING:

Total exhibition impact: approximately 10 tons CO2e – 80% of which is in the build.

Building energy:
• Energy supply is the most important step to reducing emissions. If the Design Museum used the national average electricity, the impact of the exhibition would be about 185 tons CO2e. The museum’s use of renewable energy cut the total impact by about 95%.

Exhibits:
• The objects weigh roughly 1,500kg, and the average distance they travelled is 1,100km (many are from London) thus the logistics footprint is less than 20kg CO2e (or 0.2% of the total footprint).

Exhibition build:
• The highest build impact is the screws. Using 4,800 standard stainless steel decking screws has an impact of 1.9 tons CO2e – roughly 20% of the total exhibition footprint.
• Using a timber frame system over a standard aluminium exhibition frame system saved 1.5 tons CO2e, reducing the impact by about two thirds.
• Using unfired bricks instead of fired bricks saved 6 tons CO2e, the second most significant saving after switching to renewable electricity.

Digital communication:
• Up to 10% of the total footprint is associated with digital communication • Emails: approximately 11,000 emails and 11GB of data have been shared, which equates to around 1 ton CO2e.
• Video calls: approximately 750 person hours were spent on video calls. The impact of this is less than 0.5% of the total footprint.

AFTER EXHIBITION OPENING:

The second life of materials is key to keeping Waste Age’s carbon footprint low. 3D designers Material Cultures have considered the next life of build materials and have planned for different streams to go back to their source. For example, unfired bricks will go back to the brickmakers who can put them back into the mix, and any timber off-cuts will be turned into OSB/MDF boards.

Key priories for a low impact exhibition:

1. Use renewable energy for electricity supply.
2. Select low impact construction materials for the build.
3. Commission exhibited objects using low impact materials and production methods.

Key Learnings

Chase data:
Gathering detailed information and following up with suppliers throughout the audit helped the Design Museum make informed decisions. It challenged assumptions and showed that some unexpected options – such as using recycled plastic for exhibition captions – had the lowest impact.

Challenge convention:
Both the 3D design and audit processes encouraged the Design Museum to question accepted methods of planning and building exhibitions. Sustainability isn’t something that is achieved instantly, but the more alternatives are explored, the more viable and genuinely impactful options are found.

Work together:
Only the expertise of many specialists made this process possible. Communication between Museum departments revealed how making changes can have knock-on effects, so the Design Museum aim to increase this collaboration across the organisation in future.

Count digital carbon:
Making up 10% of the exhibition’s total impact so far, the surprisingly high emissions created by video calls, websites, emails and attachments were exposed by the audit’s carbon tracker.

Minimise air travel:
Waste Age’s curators chose not to fly as part of the procurement process, and – partly due to COVID-19 – exhibitors used video links rather than sending couriers to oversee installations.

Looking Ahead

The Design Museum will share its learnings with the public, from trusted external resources gathered over the past year to the final Waste Age audit, which will include toolkits for change.

The ‘Take Action’ webpage for Waste Age aims to offer starting points for all to become agents of change, and the exhibition’s organisers and designers will share more of their process with the public through upcoming events.

"People trust museums because we can explore difficult questions in a balanced way. We want to offer what we’ve learned to designers and visitors who are looking for solutions. Because design is inherently optimistic: it shows we can do things differently.” – Josephine Chanter, Head of Audiences

Waste Age hasn’t solved all the challenges at the Design Museum, but it has set a new benchmark to build on into the future. Each exhibition can act as a catalyst – making the Museum accountable, setting goals, and rallying all staff around a specific project. Waste Age has been a powerful opportunity for the Design Museum to make progress in sustainability. The next challenge will be maintaining this momentum, no matter what exhibition is on display.

“This is just a starting point for us. It’s a journey we will continue, using our experiences and data from Waste Age as a guide.” – Gemma Curtin, Curator

visit the exhibition

Waste Age: What can design do?

We are living in the age of waste. Is design the answer to leaving our throwaway culture behind?

This audit was conducted by URGE’s Alexie Sommer and Sophie Thomas, with independent data analyst Ralf Waterfield.

Background image by SPIN design studio.