Designs on sustainability

Alisa Yao wants to help others adopt a more sustainable lifestyle through her work. A fourth-year product design student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) and an entrepreneur, Yao creates products that promote a more waste-free way of living.

Yao believes that product design is critical to reducing waste. “It’s not just telling people to live sustainably. You have to make it attractive to switch over,” she says.

Applied research and a polytechnic approach

Yao studied mining engineering at the University of British Columbia for two years before deciding that it was not for her. Eventually, she chose to study design at KPU because it allowed her to build things.

Alisa Yao, sustainable entrepreneur, at the Charity Craft Fair. | Photo by Betty Shea

“I’ve always enjoyed being hands on. I feel that it’s more rewarding to have a physical embodiment of what you’ve accomplished.”

At KPU, product design students focus on what Yao refers to as applied research. In addition to theory and skills-building classes, students participate in a studio class each semester. This involves working on problems that frequently come from local businesses. Yao is motivated by the trust that people place in her.

“I’m not doing this for marks,” says Yao. “I’m doing this because a business requires a solution and actually believes in us. In design, marks don’t really matter. It’s not about getting As and Bs. It’s about what you can actually do.”

Last month, Yao represented KPU at a conference in Ottawa where she met with members of parliament and students from other polytechnics. She argues that there are many benefits to the polytechnics’ approach to learning. Aside from the greater opportunities for practical training, she also enjoys the smaller class sizes that facilitate communication between students and instructors. She believes that polytechnics play a vital role in Canada’s education sector.

Product design as a business

Outside of the classroom, Yao runs a business selling eco-conscious products online. Her designs make replacing waste producing products with sustainable ones an attractive option.

Plastic cling wrap is a single-use solution that ends up in landfills. Yao produces beeswax wraps as substitutes that are compostable and reusable. She coats unbleached cotton with a mixture of beeswax, coconut oil and tree resin. On top of doing the job of plastic wrap, her solution provides additional benefits. The beeswax contains anti-microbial properties and the breathable fabric allows airflow that slows down food rot.

Yao’s products are the results of a creative process that takes time. “You hear of stories where people dreamed of the solution,” she says. “In reality, there’s always a learning curve.” For example, it took her several iterations to create a reusable bread bag with the right fabric.

“There were issues with mould and the fact that it may not be feasible for the [Vancouver] weather and the commuter lifestyle,” she explains.

Running an online business provides Yao with the flexibility to attend classes and to work on projects without the restrictions of scheduled work shifts.

“For me, being able to sell things online and being able to do markets on weekends, choosing what markets I want to go to, is liberating. I can come home, eat dinner, and if I have some free time, I can sew something.”

Being aware of the sustainable option

One barrier to waste reduction is lack of information. Sometimes people are not aware of options that are both eco-friendly and economical. Yao gives the example of refilling.

“People don’t know that things can be refilled,” says Yao. When she runs out of a product – be it shampoo, soap or laundry detergent – she brings her old containers to The Soap Dispensary for refills. The refills are often locally sourced, contain fewer chemicals and cost less.

Other times, store owners may not market themselves as providing eco-friendly services. For example, many Vancouver breweries offer growler fills but do not advertise the environmental benefits. Yao explains that the value of the solution speaks for itself.

“Usually when you buy in bulk you end up saving,” she says. “They don’t have to sell it [as zero waste]. It just makes sense that people bring growlers for refills instead of buying bottles.”

Alisa Yao’s designs can be found at