New York City’s Trash Problem Has a Design Solution
Like virtually every metropolis in the world, New York has a trash problem. The city produces approximately 24,000 tons of it a day. Much of it is carted to landfills in distant places, where it pollutes the soil and water. Worse still: this grossly inefficient system costs the city more than one billion dollars a year. To help the city reach its stated goal of reducing waste to landfills by 90% in twelve years, a large, collaborative team of architects, planners, building owners, managers and operators, and waste haulers, worked together to create the Zero Waste Design Guidelines. Last week an exhibition opened at the Center for Architecture in New York entitled Designing Waste: Strategies for a Zero Waste City. Curated by author and journalist Andrew Blum, the show is based on the comprehensive guidelines, which were funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation and included the participation of the New York chapter of the AIA; Kiss + Cathcart, Architects; the New York City Departments of Sanitation, City Planning, and Transportation, as well as the Housing Authority, among many others. Prior to the show’s opening, I corresponded via email with architect Clare Miflin, one of the lead authors of the guidelines.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
CM: Clare Miflin
What role is there for architects in reducing the amount of waste all of us create everyday?
Waste is a design flaw—in packaging, products, buildings, cities—the whole system is designed as a linear, cradle-to-grave consumption model. Ecosystems recycle materials indefinitely, in circular loops, but humans discard 99% of the materials we extract from the earth within six months. So as designers of our built environment, there are many things architects can do.
The Zero Waste Design Guidelines (ZWDG) categorize them into strategies that reduce material consumption; increase the diversion of recycling; manage waste better as a material flow; and reduce the volume of waste. (See here for more detail.) So, for example, architects can design a restaurant with a waste station that makes it immediately obvious where to dispose waste to which stream, to use reusable dishware and provide dishwashers, and can set the kitchen up for tracking of food waste, storage and return of delivery crates. (See our food service infographic.)
How does this fit into the broader goals of sustainable design? Is it about better design, or changing behavior?
A C40 report said that consumption-rich cities like New York City emit more than 60% more greenhouse gases (GHG) than previously calculated. Mayor Iveson, of Edmonton, where the report was released, said consumption-based accounting is key to knowing what a city’s true carbon footprint is. “Smarter purchasing, buying local, and reducing waste are part of what can be done to reduce consumption emissions.”
Design of course is not the only factor. Behavior change is necessary too, but design can greatly influence behavior. As New Yorkers, we’re well aware that the design of a city reflects the aspirations of the city, and the design of a building reflects the aspirations of the client. (Just look at Trump Tower.) If we want to change the system, we need to change the system’s goals, and that’s about changing the aspirations embodied in the city and its buildings. We need to change our considerations, too—to understand the consequences of our actions within a complicated global system. To be a sustainable and resilient city, we need to work on many interconnected pieces that waste plays a part in, and they’re all part of OneNYC goals: social equity, reducing GHG emissions 80% by 2050, Vision Zero (pedestrian safety), strong communities and job growth. We also shouldn’t be outsourcing our impacts to other communities—those producing and disposing of the materials we use here.
What scale do you see the greatest potential? Is this about building design, neighborhood design, city design, system design?
All of the above. Material usage is a complicated, interconnected system, and how the building deals with waste affects the city, and how the waste collection system works affects the building. You can’t separate the pieces. For an existing historic neighborhood without much space in buildings, the solution may be at a neighborhood scale and use public space, such as the street. At the moment there’s a great potential to improve the quality of life on the streets of NYC. We can’t continue to increase density and use the sidewalk as our place to store ever increasing mounds of garbage bags. It’s becoming untenable.
You’ve been visiting dozens of architects offices, presenting the Zero Waste Design Guidelines. What are you hearing from them about how buildings can perform better for their occupants?
It’s been really interesting. Often, they’ve said it’s not something they’ve thought about much before, but now see such opportunity for improvement in the way they design for waste. Some say the impetus needs to come from having the guidelines be a requirement in the code or zoning or in LEED—and we’re working on proposals for those things. We also need to convince clients and developers. Some are really happy to have the waste calculator tool so they can now plan for waste. One said he’d been waiting twenty years for a tool like this. Many are inspired to think of the whole material flow system and to consider how it could be transformed, which I describe as analogous to ecosystem development.
The idea of Zero Waste is two things: a design problem, and a political challenge. What has to happen on the political and policy front for zero waste to happen?
We have a policy section in the ZWDG on that. It needs to be pushed at a city level with a multi-agency task force. The Mayor’s Office needs to put together a task force of representatives from different city agencies and the private sector to move the proposals in the Guidelines forward. They need to do pilots and analyze and review them. They need to consider changes in the building code and zoning requirements. The city can require use of the ZWDG for its own buildings. This is the way the city pushed energy efficiency and GHG emission reductions. Similarly we need a combination of rule changes, benchmarking, and sub metering. Data and feedback loops help change behavior and allow tracking of progress.
What can citizens do to push this idea forward?
Put political pressure on our elected officials. Talk to elected officials. Make it known that this is a priority for them. And then vote accordingly. Develop community based solutions for sharing, repair, reuse and composting. Consume mindfully—it’s like giving thanks before eating—being aware of what it took to bring materials to you, and where they’re going before you throw them away. Realizing that everything is connected and everything matters can seem overwhelming, but it can also be liberating. It’s not about feeling guilty but instead realizing that everything we do can have positive ripple effects.
How realistic is this vision, in a society like ours, geared to endless consumption?
Well, it’s pretty obvious to most people that we can’t continue increasing consumption in a world of finite resources. Society is going to have to change or there won’t be a future for humanity. I don’t think anyone really feels good throwing things away, and it doesn’t need to be like that. Mixed garbage is disgusting, but repair, reuse, recycling and composting isn’t.
How will we be handling our trash in ten years? Twenty years?
I think we have to move away from bags on the street and manual labor. We also have to reduce our trash stream and increase our composting and recycling greatly. We have to make reuse, repair, recycling a social amenity and strengthen communities at the same time. We also have to move towards the circular economy—to a service rather than ownership model for so many things. For example, Philips offers lighting as a service, so the fixtures can be continually repaired and upgraded, and at their end of life Philips can take them back and recycle them so much more easily and conveniently than a contractor could through the waste system. Similarly we could have kids stuff as a service. A family could pay a yearly fee and use bikes, strollers, bassinets, toy kitchens etc. and they could be repaired and reused.
Are there any cities currently moving toward zero waste?
Yes! Many cities in the United States and around the world have set zero waste goals, among them New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Buenos Aires, London, Milan, Paris and Tokyo. The plans may differ, but the overarching goal is to stop the relentless transformation of natural resources into garbage.
Featured images courtesy of the Center for Architecture.