Designing for Diversion

Many buildings are not designed with safe or hygienic waste disposal in mind, forcing building operators to come up with innovative ways to manage the problem. What’s worse, some buildings that have designated waste management spaces are reassigning their usage to generate income—allowing garbage to pile up on the curb and the smell of trash to seep back into the buildings, making for an unpleasant environment. To understand these challenges and possible solutions, Urban Green hosted Waste Design Advice from Building Operators on July 22, where a panel of building operators discussed the impact of building design on storage limitations, accessibility and more.

Christina Grace (Food Print Group) moderated the discussion. A contributor to the Zero Waste Design Guidelines, Grace advocates for designing systems that take into consideration how people move through spaces, and the quantity and kinds of trash they generate.

Panelist Nick Rama (Vornado Realty Trust), focused on commercial waste separation and the lack of waste disposal codes for commercial buildings. One solution Rama proposed was implementing waste auditing to penalize tenants for improper waste disposal. Waste auditing could be used to educate tenants about the importance of recycling correctly and create healthy competition between neighbors to get better results. 

Rama also proposed creating centralized recycling stations with appropriate signage, along with more convenient locations. This would encourage more recycling and would help minimize contamination. Additionally, online shopping has changed waste streams, and Rama recommends using a trash compactor to compress cardboard and reduce the number of pickups required for their disposal. This increase in tenant waste also affects employee health—building custodial staff have seen an increase in back injuries from moving heavy waste, and the use of mechanical trash movers for inclines is one possible solution.

Panelist Martin Robertson (Strivers Garden Condominium) discussed residential waste management. According to Robertson, simple strategies can improve recycling rates. Neat, clean and organized waste storage spaces lead to a major reduction in waste contamination. Enforcing the importance of recycling through signage and fines has also lead to a major reduction in waste contamination. Robertson has implemented services such as “VIP composting,” which allows residents to drop off compost tins at the front desk, have them dumped, rinsed and placed back at the front desk for pick up. This service reduces the contamination of recyclable materials with compost and also reduces the cost of cleaning dirty chutes. 

Robertson is also being creative with the increase of cardboard boxes by storing loose paper within boxes or paper bags as a way of storing recyclables inside recyclables. This reduces the need for plastic bags and electric trash movers.

To design better waste disposal systems, Grace suggests using the NYC Waste Calculator, Based on a large California waste study, this tool helps designers determine how much waste would be produced based on building type and the number of occupants and units. Robertson suggests following organizations like the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board. If all else fails, he suggests promoting the financial savings of effective waste management instead of the environmental benefits to make businesses and residents do a better job.

As an architecture student, I was struck by the importance of waste management, its direct connection to recycling and its absence in my undergraduate curriculum. In the future, I know that waste disposal will always be on my 'checklist' of design considerations to achieve an all-around efficient ensemble of building systems.

About the authors

Jordane King-Burney
Jordane King-Burney interned with Urban Green Council and is currently an architecture student at the City College of New York.