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Rethinking Building Design to Achieve Zero Waste

The Zero Waste Design Guidelines look at the role design has to play in achieving New York City’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2030.

“The Zero Waste Design Guidelines” began with a question and have resulted in a comprehensive set of strategies that address issues of waste management and waste reduction through building design.

Clare Miflin, an architect and member of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY), was moderating an Urban Green panel on organics collection in New York City when she asked: “What can architects do to support organics collection in the buildings they design?”

For Miflin, and fellow panelists Christina Grace, CEO of Foodprint Group, and Brett Mons, then a senior program manager at the City of New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY), the question sparked more questions after the event.

What started as a volunteer effort grew to include more than 100 architects, planners, developers, city officials, waste haulers, recycling experts, building managers and other stakeholders who had a broad range of experience and backgrounds.

The Zero Waste Design Guidelines are made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and were developed in collaboration with the AIA New York Committee on the Environment; Kiss + Cathcart, Architects; ClosedLoops; and the Foodprint Group.

The planning process involved several city agencies, including DSNY, along with the departments of city planning and transportation, the mayor’s Office of Sustainability and more.

The coalition looked at the crucial role that design has to play in achieving New York City’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2030. The idea was to trace how waste currently flows through buildings in New York City, where it is stored before pickup and what new containers or storage space would be needed for additional waste streams as the city moves toward its mission of achieving its zero waste goals.

“Zero waste requires an integrated approach with architects, planners and building operators working in tandem to design a coherent system in which materials are easily separated, handled, stored and collected in their own streams,” the guidelines state.

“As additional material streams such as organic waste, textiles and e-waste are collected, we need our buildings to facilitate their separation. In most buildings, trash disposal is top priority, which makes diverting other materials less convenient. Organics present new challenges. Heavier than other recycling streams, they also decompose, thus need to be containerized, ventilated and collected more often,” according to the guidelines.

The team visited about 40 buildings in New York City, following the path of waste, from where it’s thrown away to where it gets picked up. “We had a much better understanding of the whole process of what building managers go through and what designers do wrong. We distilled that information into best practice strategy ideas,” says Miflin.

The coalition looked at how buildings are currently designed and how they could be transformed, as well as how new buildings could be designed with waste in mind. The recommendations fall into the following categories: Planning for Materials Flow Through a Building; Making Waste Separation Easier; Reducing Material Consumption Through Programming Decisions; and Reducing the Volume of Waste. In addition, the document offers recommended policy guidelines.

Another tool developed through the process is the waste calculator. The idea came out of the series of workshops the team held to gain feedback on the various strategies.

"People were saying it was necessary to have more information about how much waste a building was likely to produce," says Miflin. "We are trying to get people to zero waste, so they are going to be reducing waste; they are going to be diverting a lot more. We have to have them plan for what their goals are, so we can’t just use what is typical now. We have to be able to get them to say, 'what if we could separate 80 percent or 90 percent of organic waste, then how much space would we need?'"

They also looked at how trash affects city residents once it leaves the building. For example, Juliette Spertus from ClosedLoops says an important aspect of the process included rethinking how garbage could be put out for collection.

“In particular, for New York City, we’re trying to move away from loose piles of bags in front of every building that must be manually lifted into trucks by collection workers. Alternatives include containers that can be automatically emptied into trucks, and baling and compacting to reduce the volume of recycling streams,” says Spertus.

The guidelines offer a new way of building planning, as well as pathways for improving existing buildings. “The guidelines create a visual language and frameworks to encourage designers to integrate the design of waste operations into the planning phase, instead of waiting until it is too late,” says Spertus. “Of course, most of New York City’s buildings are already built. The guidelines include strategies for improving operations inside existing buildings as well as strategies for shared collection at the community scale.”

Grace believes the design guidelines can help make organics collection efforts in New York City more successful.

“Along with ideas for improving the quality of food waste (which all the haulers are requesting), there are best commercial and residential practices for staging wasted materials for pickup,” says Grace.

In New York City, organics are stored in 32-37-, 64- or 96-gallon containers or in a compactor. The waste calculator can help people to estimate expected organic waste from different types of business and residential buildings in order to determine the best storage container options and the necessary storage space, says Grace.

“The guidelines show many very simple and some more high tech practices for reducing or diverting food waste. We are particularly proud of the food operations infographic highlighting seven best practices for reducing or separating food waste, most of which are simple,” notes Grace. “We also cover technologies for processing food waste onsite, from dewatering systems to anaerobic digesters that convert food waste into methane and fertilizer. The methane can produce heat and electricity.”

Grace says the team hopes that the work will lead to innovative pilot projects and policies that move the city closer to meeting its diversion goals. For example, according to Grace, requiring developers to submit waste management plans along with building plans for approval by both Department of Buildings and Sanitation could ensure that developers and designers think about where and how materials will be separated, how they will move through buildings, as well as locations for volume reduction technology and other innovations.

Another way that the guidelines are educating the community is through the Zero Waste Design Guidelines Exhibition, which was held at The Center for Architecture in New York City during the summer and explored the challenges of waste management. Accompanying the exhibition were various events, including a full-day symposium and educational programs for K-12 students.

For the team, in addition to hoping to get the guidelines integrated into policies in New York City, the goal is to see the guidelines adapted in other cities as well.

“I am kind of amazed at how much momentum there has been,” says Miflin, who now works on the initiative full-time. “We are going to keep going. We are definitely dedicated to taking it further.”

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