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Designing a Trash-Free Future

AIA New York’s Zero Waste Design Guidelines help the city devise a plan to meet ambitious sustainability goals.


Illustration: Courtesy of Center for Architecture (AIANY)New York Department of Sanitation Waste Stream: Capture rate is the proportion of recyclables that get diverted per waste stream. Diversion rate is the proportion of the total stream that is diverted from disposal. Refuse is defined as the waste stream that gets disposed. (i.e., sent to landfill or waste energy incinerators).

Tens of thousands of tons of trash leave New York City every day—roughly the weight of 8,000 cars. Most of it travels an average of 300 miles to states such as Pennsylvania, where it is dumped into landfills and forgotten. In 2015, New York spent $316 million shipping the city’s trash to its final resting places.

In a bold effort to eliminate citywide waste altogether, the city released its OneNYC plan in 2015, which takes its cue from other environmental initiatives in targeting 2030 as the year when zero waste produced by New Yorkers will end up in a landfill.

Spurred by the ambitiousness of this goal, members of AIA New York’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) began asking themselves how architects and developers could best address the problem of waste generated by buildings—or, more specifically, the people in them. They released the Zero Waste Design Guidelines in October 2017 as a blueprint for how buildings could better manage and divert the waste streams being created within them, and how architects and designers could think holistically going forward about waste management during the design process.

“To me, it was a blind spot that no one had really thought about, and a lot of potential to make a difference,” says Clare Miflin, AIA, a member of AIANY’s COTE team who spearheaded the Zero Waste Design Guidelines project. Starting in November 2016, Miflin and a team of more than 100 collaborators set out to create a resource to help designers, building operators, and planners build strategies for dramatically reducing waste and working toward the greater adoption of circular material flows. This involved more than 40 residential, commercial, and institutional buildings, following the path of waste from disposal to collection, and talking to porters and superintendents about waste collection practices. The study was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and developed in collaboration with Kiss + Cathcart, Architects(where Miflin was working at the time); ClosedLoops, an infrastructure planning and development firm; and Foodprint Group, which helps food businesses incorporate zero waste into their operating practices.

Illustration: Courtesy of Center for Architecture (AIANY)

The Zero Waste Design Guidelines will be presented publicly in the form of an exhibit at AIANY’s Center for Architecture from June 14 to Sept. 1. Journalist Andrew Blum, the exhibit’s curator, emphasizes the importance of bringing a larger awareness of waste management to both architects and the public.

“I feel it’s really important to acknowledge how novel it is to have compactor rooms and basement hallways and stoops and garbage chutes presented as design in the Center for Architecture galleries,” Blum says. “It’s a space that’s in every building that architects have not studied.”

The exhibit will feature large gallery-sized images of infographics included in the report addressing the ways New York City currently deals with waste in different building types, as well strategies for improving practices in the future. A screen will showcase Instagram photos tagged with #pilesoftrash. The exhibit will also display a reconstruction of Etsy’s office-waste management station, a pair of cardboard and plastic bailers, and a giant 3D infographic showing the potential (and benefit) of zero waste.

Although the idea of eliminating waste entirely seems like an immense and complex problem, Miflin insists that the principles are very simple. The guidelines emphasize treating waste as a resource rather than trash, which depends on the ability of city dwellers to deposit their waste into separate streams before it’s collected by the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which can then process them individually. New York law currently requires residents to separate all trash into three categories before leaving it on the curb for pickup: paper and cardboard; metal/glass/plastic; and non-recyclable garbage/trash. DSNY is also starting to collect additional waste types, including organic waste, textiles, and electronics waste, and promoting donation and reuse of items—all of which are necessary for getting to zero waste.

“At the simplest level, it’s just thinking through each waste stream that can be diverted—where will it be collected, and how it will it be moved to the place it’s collected?” Miflin says. “And what waste streams could you avoid making in the first place?”


Katherine Flynn for AIA Architect

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