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Low Waste Goals Need to Be Designed into Buildings from the Beginning

by Ushma Pandya, Co-Founder of Think Zero LLC, a Zero Waste Advisory firm

Buildings are designed for comfort, productivity, entertaining and living. Buildings have historically not been designed to support low waste goals. However, that is changing as architects and developers have come to realize the importance of design in supporting low waste goals. A few years ago, the Zero Waste Design guidelines were developed and have been a catalyst for thinking about design and waste.

A simple example of the importance of design is the problem of collecting recyclable and organic materials (aka compost) in older office buildings. The pantries can be small and may not have a sink. There is no way to rinse recyclables and no room to put in a third bin for composting. If companies can solve the question of where to collect organic materials in their office space, the problem of where to store the compost bin in the loading dock area arises. If organic materials are not collected every day (and it may not be feasible economically), then a cold storage room is usually required to manage odors.

Without effective storage, tenants and property managers may be reluctant to embark on a composting program. The same issues arise in residential buildings where the refuse room is generally small and often does not have any room for compost bins, let alone recycle bins or any other specialty recycle bins.

One of the issues with designing for waste is that there are many competing priorities for space, and waste does not always have a strong advocate at the table -- typically, no one is advocating for waste at the design table, but that is beginning to change. Secondly, the volume of waste and the variety of materials that are tossed have increased over the past few decades, necessitating more space for waste storage and for sorting.

In our experience, someone needs to be the voice for low waste goals during the building’s design phase.

Key questions to ask during the design phase for both residential and commercial buildings include:

What are the low waste goals for the building?

For example, is composting a must-have in the building? We believe that more cities will require separation and collection of organic materials of its residential and commercial buildings in the next decade. Design will need to account for collection, potentially on all floors, and transportation to the loading dock.

In office buildings, tenants may want to make sure that there is an efficiently designed space to house the extra bin. In residential buildings, the pull-out drawer usually meant for trash and recycle bins potentially also needs to include space for a compost bin (or maybe an innovative counter design to hold the bin). The key here is to think in advance about how the waste streams for the building will evolve and to create space and design to make it easy for tenants to sort and divert their waste from landfill.

What are the key initiatives that have design implications?

One initiative considered in office buildings is switching to reusables from single-use plastic. Related design implications include sinks, dishwashers, transportation of reusables back to the cafeteria, etc. A company that is building a brand new office tower, with significant food operations in the building, should design the building so that reusable plates/cups/cutlery can be easily returned to the cafeteria as well as enable employees to use their own reusable plates/cups/cutlery. This requires installing sinks and dishwashers on each floor and establishing easily-accessible collection points for reusable cafeteria items.

In one residential building that sought to support zero waste practices, they included water bottle refill stations and hand dryers in all public spaces, including the gym. They built into their building regulations that no single-use water bottles could be purchased and no paper towels could be purchased for use in the common spaces.

What are the space requirements for the bins that collect and transport the various streams of waste?

In residential buildings, there is often the desire to sort and collect a wide variety of streams beyond just trash and basic recyclables (e.g. textiles, batteries, electronics, books, hazardous waste), so that these other materials can be diverted from landfill and incineration. We have seen “swap spots” pop up in apartment buildings and offices. Having a dedicated space for swapping, along with rules indicating what can be swapped, allows for a more useful and tidy amenity space for residents. In some residential buildings, especially those with smaller units, property teams are thinking about creating “lending libraries” for items that are not always used (tools, bulky kitchen appliances, etc.). All of these low waste programs require space, and more importantly, easy accessibility for all tenants.

One residential building we worked with installed a dual chute that can divert bags to either the trash container or the recycle container (residents must select the appropriate waste stream using a button in the Recycle Room on their floor), which helped manage the labor costs and the space issue on each floor.

It is helpful to start with a baseline assumption of the volume of material that will be generated in the building so that a plan for managing that volume and transporting it for pick up can be developed.

A baseline assumption can be found by asking other similar buildings about their typical volume of waste or by using the Zero Waste Design Guidelines waste calculator. In NYC, trash bags usually end up on the street at night for pick up but there is a growing desire to containerize the bags in order to improve street appearance. Containerizing also reduces the rodent problem. Knowing the potential waste generation can help determine if there should be compactors, toters or containers.

Finally, evolving waste legislation (mandating recycling, banning certain materials) is nudging people to get better at reducing what they send to landfill. We are seeing cities implement low waste and zero waste goals. These changes will impact what tenants of both commercial and residential buildings need to do with their waste. Better designed buildings can help individuals, companies and cities meet their low and zero waste goals.

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