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.

On view from October 2021 to February 2022, the exhibition Waste Age: What Can Design Do? called 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 asked what design can do, it also called for the Design Museum to explore how to reduce waste when creating an exhibition.

In order to make the best impact possible, we appointed URGE Collective to help reduce the environmental impact of the Waste Age exhibition. By sharing learnings we 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 was 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 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

After the exhibition closed, we completed our in-depth environmental audit of Waste Age, covering before, during and after the exhibition. While the focus was to reduce environmental impact from the outset, it was important to capture the final data to better understand where to sharpen our focus in future projects.

"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 Collective

The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was conducted through interviews, observation and data analysis. We set up digital carbon trackers and worked with contributors to gather information first-hand from challenging and complex supply chains.

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 was 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


Total exhibition impact: approximately 28 tonnes CO2e.

Building energy:
• Switching energy supply to a renewable source is the biggest step we can take to reducing emissions. By using renewable electricity the Design Museum ensured that the impact of the Waste Age was 28 tonnes otherwise it would have been about 185 tonnes CO2e. This alone cut the total possible impact by about 85%.

• The exhibits featured in Waste Age weighed roughly 2.5 tonnes and the average distance travelled was roughly 1,250 km. Here’s where curatorial decisions have a significant impact on sustainability. Just one exhibit in Waste Age was responsible for 2 tonnes of the 2.5 tonnes total weight. Given that many of the exhibits were from the UK, the fact that this one was shipped from abroad was also responsible for pushing up the average distance travelled by exhibits. The logistics footprint, excluding this major commission, was less than 20 kg CO2e (or 0.06% of the total footprint) and including it was around 5 tonnes CO2e, plus its embodied carbon was estimated at around 9.3 tonnes CO2e (5.6 tCO2e in the TVs and 3.7 tCO2e in the copper casts). The total emissions related to the one exhibit was approximately 14.2 tonnes CO2e, and almost half the exhibition’s impact. So: should we have included it?

• What had the biggest carbon footprint in the whole exhibition build? The screws. Building Waste Age took 4,800 standard stainless steel decking screws to hold everything together. They had an impact of 1.9 tonnes CO2e – roughly 7% of the total exhibition footprint. Using a timber frame system instead of a standard aluminium frame saved 1.5 tonnes CO2e, and reduced the impact by about two thirds. Using unfired bricks instead of fired bricks saved 6 tonnes CO2e, the second most significant saving after switching to renewable electricity. We also made savings by retaining some of the walls from the previous exhibition, and re-purposed Silicate blocks from the previous exhibition to make new plinths.

Digital communication:
• Interestingly, all digital communications (email communications, video calls, and file sharing) accounted for only 2.7% of the total exhibition footprint despite the project being developed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The second life of materials was key to keeping Waste Age’s carbon footprint low. 3D designers Material Cultures and the project team considered which materials could be donated or go back to their source where possible.

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.

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

"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.

Since the exhibition, we have developed this work further, and published our learnings in an exhibition design guide which is available to download for free in all 6 UN languages. Click here to find out more.

We are also working with museums around the country to deliver bespoke advisory packages to support them on their journeys in this area. For the Art Fund’s Going Places project, our environmental impact team is supporting 20+ UK museums to reflect on their current environmental approach and to update sustainability strategies across their organisations. If you would like to find out more about our specialist consultancy services write to

more about 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?

Touring opportunities

The Design Museum has organised more than 170 tours to 137 venues in 38 countries worldwide. We believe that creativity is fuelled by international exchange and exposure to new ideas and perspectives. By showcasing designers, as well as working with a variety of partners around the world, we welcome conversations that will lead to further collaborations.

Waste Age: Slots available from Autumn 2024.

Waste Age exhibition catalogue

This book showcases some of the visionary designers who are reinventing our relationship with waste, including Formafantasma, Stella McCartney, Lacaton & Vassal, Atelier Luma, Rotor, Fernando Laposse, Bethany Williams, Phoebe English and Natsai Audrey Chieza.

The environmental audit was conducted by the Design Museum and URGE’s Alexie Sommer and Sophie Thomas, with independent data analyst Ralf Waterfield.

Background image by SPIN studio.