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  • Designing Waste—Strategies for a Zero Waste City

    Here are some interesting numbers to get you thinking about waste. Did you know that nearly 40 percent of all food in the United States is wasted? Food waste accounts for 20 percent of materials sent to landfills and is the main contributor to landfill methane emissions, which make up 18 percent of total U.S. emissions. New York City discards approximately 24,000 tons of material every day. As our landfills are full, tons of waste are sent to dumping grounds in other states, some of which are hundreds of miles away. In an effort to remedy this, New York has set an ambitious goal to be a ‘zero waste’ city by 2030 by reusing and recycling all of our waste.

    “Designing Waste—Strategies for a Zero Waste City,” a recently concluded exhibition at the Center for Architecture at 536 LaGuardia Place, was based on the idea that we need to change the way we think about waste and that the system can be improved by design. In 2017, a group of architects, designers and waste professionals examined the lifecycle of waste in buildings and neighborhoods and put together a set of guidelines called the Zero Waste Design Guidelines. Zero waste is not about eliminating waste, but about transforming it into resources. Currently, only 20 percent of waste collected by the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is diverted from landfills and only 50 percent of recyclables are separated for diversion.

    As part of its strategic plan for the future (2030), OneNYC aims to meet a 90 percent reduction in the waste sent to landfills from the 2005 baseline of 3.6 million tons of waste collected by the City of New York, Department of Sanitation. How can we accomplish this? Architects and designers can play a bigger role in how buildings are designed to accommodate waste collection, sorting, and recycling. The Center for Architecture exhibition presented ways that architects can design spaces and systems to encourage people to recycle. These would include planning and providing for waste management—disposal and separation, movement of waste through a building, storage and collection. Different processes that residential and commercial buildings could use to collect and sort waste and recyclables varying with building size, age and typology were illustrated. A sixty-square-foot grid exhibit highlighted the minimum space required to store waste and recyclables for an eight-unit building. Space requirements get considerably bigger for larger buildings.

    Part of implementing zero waste tactics is to get people to understand how much waste they produce individually and collectively. To help with that, Zero Waste Design has also created a Waste Calculator ( to figure out the volume of waste your building is producing and the measures you can take to reduce it. So, when it’s time to put aside this newspaper, perhaps some contemplation on how to help NYC reach its Zero waste goal by 2030 would come in handy. Remember, it all starts with the three Rs—reduce, reuse, and recycle!