The People’s Design Lab was first implemented in the UK in 2013, inspired by the Little Museum of Bad Industrial Design in Italy and zero waste achievements around the world.


In 2016, Zero Waste Europe launched a new edition of the Lab, where European citizens can come together and help change design. A laboratory for ordinary folk, experimenting with design. It’s a place for people who care about reuse and recycling, a place to address industries who create “stuff” in the first place and say “look, we’re doing our bit, what about you?”


We need solutions for the products that are left in the waste bin (the ones that cannot be recycled, composted, reused or repaired).  That’s why we are bringing together a new kind of design team; professional designers, manufacturers, students, ‘fixperts’, alongside ourselves who are simply frustrated by the valuable resources that end up in our bins. Together, we are the People’s Design Lab.

2018 Contest

In 2018 we focused on the four key issues of poor design, and asked people to vote for the worst offenders in each category.

Food Packaging

Winner with 805 votes


Overpackaging is the perfect example of bad design and illustrates our society’s failure to use our resources sustainably. Although packaging can sometimes have a useful role in product preservation, current overpackaging practices are increasingly driven by marketing and branding needs rather than product durability. Here are three iconic examples of overpackaging:


  1. Plastic food packaging: Plastic food packaging accounts for 40% of the annual 49 million tonnes of plastic consumed in Europe, making it the most common use of plastic. Much of this plastic packaging is neither reusable nor recyclable, and it contains many chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, linked to diseases such as cancer and infertility. See our report here.
  2. Online packaging: This sector is well-known for its so-called “Russian doll” practice, where a pre-boxed item comes inside a second or even a third box. Although figures for online shopping packaging waste are not available in the EU, packaging waste is of the magnitude of 166.3 kg per person, with cardboard and paper being the main packaging waste material in the region (34.8 million tonnes in 2015).
  3. Styrofoam: Styrofoam might be a light material but it plays a heavyweight role in poorly designed products. Styrofoam cannot be economically recycled, and, when littered, it breaks down into microplastics, which pollute the environment and end up entering our food chain.

Plastic Bags

Winner with 345 votes

Designed for trash

Poor product design results in your products quickly becoming rubbish. There are too many examples of products with unnecessarily short lives – here are some of the worst offenders.


  1. Smartphones: The average European gets a new smartphone every two years, with estimates suggesting that only 8.5% of old phones in the EU are recycled. With an ever-increasing volume of e-waste produced, campaigners are asking the European Commission to take action on product design; more specifically, to increase the durability, reparability and recyclability of products.
  2. Plastic bags: Every European uses an average of 175 single-use plastic bags per year, making a total of more than 87 billion per year in the EU alone. Their exponential growth, short life and numerous adverse effects on the environment have made the single-use plastic bag an icon of both poor design and our throwaway culture.
  3. Microplastics: Pieces of plastic less than 5mm that can originate from different sources, such as microbeads from personal care products, fibres from synthetic clothing, pre-production pellets and powders, and fragments from larger degraded plastic products. Recently, microplastics have been found as far away as the ice of the Arctic.

Plastic Bottles

Winner with 335 votes

Single-use plastics

  1. Recently, microplastics have been found as far away as the ice of the Arctic.

Single-use plastics are prone to littering and come at a high environmental cost. Despite this, many plastic products, from condiment sachets to lightweight plastic bags, are designed to be used for a short period of time (from minutes or even seconds) and then thrown away. Even when they are collected in waste management systems, most plastics are still landfilled and incinerated . According to the UN, the cost of plastic waste externalities, together with the costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production, is estimated at USD 40 billion annually or around EUR 34.5 billion. Some of the worst offenders:


  1. Plastic straws: Straws have become the symbol of items that will be used for only a few seconds before being thrown away. When they become litter, straws pose a serious hazard to marine life. With bans on single-use plastic straws likely to be introduced across Europe, they have become synonymous with poor product design.
  2. Bottles: One million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. This will increase by 20% by 2021. Although plastic bottles are recyclable, fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling, and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead, most plastic bottles end up in landfill or in the ocean.
  3. Coffee cups: Single-use coffee cups are notoriously hard to recycle, chiefly because the cardboard is attached to a polyethylene liner which is difficult to separate. Reusable alternatives are readily available but coffee shops are slow to adopt them as an option. This is why single-use coffee cups for hot drinks on the go remain very popular, with countries like the UK using 2.5 billion single-use cups every year.

Food contact material

Winner with 496 votes

Toxic Products

Did you know that many products contain harmful chemicals?


  1. Food contact material: Many hazardouschemicals are present in the materials that come into contact with food, such as packaging. These chemicals can easily leach or migrate into food, especially when exposed to high temperatures or when contact times are long. Once in our food, they enter our bodies. Certain hazardous chemicals are banned or restricted for product use yet are allowed for materials that are in contact with food. It is estimated that 58 chemicals recognised as “Substances of Very High Concern” are permitted in food contact materials. In addition, EU laws cover only five of the 17 different types of food contact materials, with paper and cardboard, for example, remaining unregulated.
  2. Menstrual products: Every menstruator will have their period for up to 3,000 days, or the equivalent of 8.2 years. During that time, they will use an average of 12,000 pads, the equivalent of 150kgs, or enough to fill two mini-buses. Single-use plastic menstrual products contain many chemicals, from glyphosate, BPA and BPS to endocrine-disrupting substances linked to illnesses like cancer, infertility and heart disease.
  3. Flame retardants in furniture: Often found in the foam and textiles of furniture, these are intended to stop fire from spreading. Scientific evidence, however, shows that their use is not linked to any meaningful improvement in fire safety. When we are exposed to flame retardants, they accumulate in our bodies and are linked to cancer, hormonal disruption, decreased fertility, neurological impairment and lower birth-weight, among others. They are currently found everywhere on the planet: they have reached the Arctic, entered our food and even breast milk.

2017 Contest

In 2017, people voted for the #designed4trash products of their choice. As well as voting, people were asked to provide information on sustainable alternatives.

Winner of the badly designed product 2017

Single-use plastic bags were voted the most wasteful product in 2017. Their contribution to plastic pollution and the fact that there are reusable alternatives convinced voters that this was the best example of bad design.

Second place

Styrofoam food and drinks containers won the silver medal in 2017’s badly designed product contest. Their short life and the number of reusable alternatives already available in the market made them a deserving runner-up.

Third place

Single-use coffee capsules were voted the third worst product design of the year. Many  voters highlighted how easy it is to make good coffee without creating such waste, and pointed out that even if a coffee machine is used, pads can be composted.

2016 Contest

In 2016, the People’s Design Lab launched a contest where people could come together to nominate the worst products in the market. Participants were asked to nominate products in five different categories.

Bin Again: This award was for those items which you find in your bin week after week. Things that you see being used regularly, but due to their design produce a lot of unnecessary waste. We wanted to nominate these products so that zero waste alternatives can be designed, identified and promoted.

The winner was: Single-use coffee capsules

Russian Doll: This award was for examples of completely excessive product packaging. Where products can be found wrapped in multiple layers of single-use and non-recyclable packaging. An example of this kind of badly designed product could be pre-halved avocados wrapped in cardboard and plastic.

The winner was: Plastic packed vegetables & fruits

Weakest Link: This category was for products which are expected to last for a long time, but ended up being short lived. Breaking, without any possibility of repair. Maybe it was just a very small part of the product which broke, but with out the possibility of replacement or repair the whole object has to be binned.

The winner was: the umbrella

Open Award: This category was for products which are poorly designed, but don’t fit into any of the other categories. Participants could submit any product into this category, including the reason why it is an example of bad product design!

The winner was: thermal paper & receipts

Good Design Award: This category was for products which are outstanding examples of good design. Where you are able to replace parts easily, without binning the whole product, and products which can last for years with minimal waste.

The winner was: Boc ‘n’ Roll

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