Waste Not, Want Not

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Thinking about what waste we produce is incredibly interesting prospect when considering how to create cities that are sustainable. Tying at the cultural patterns of consumption, closing the loop on waste creation, and finding use for wastes generated on a city or district scale is one aspect of what I hope to accomplish in my thesis. When I consider how much we use and dispose of in our lives I see developing a more comprehensive vision for waste stream management as an important aspect of creating sustainable cities and regions. If we consider that there are areas still allowing backyard burning, even with the attendant health impacts (increased risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments, and cause headaches), it makes the importance of addressing our cultural relationship with waste even more important.

In 2012 the US generated 251 Million tons of solid waste, 87 million of that was diverted from landfills by being recycled. The increase from only 15 million tons in 1987 is fantastic but when we consider that organic materials still make up the largest part of our waste it becomes striking how far we have to go. Nationally, the combined figures for food waste and yard waste account for 28% of the 251 million tons of waste, or 70.28 million tons of compostable waste. Living in Seattle has been an exciting change for me with the availability of a municipal scale composting system that even accepts meat and bones, which are usually a no-no for compost. What I wish was that other cities had organic waste management practices that would exceed the options here in Seattle. Sadly, this isn’t the case but it could be a goal we strive for.

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What we waste matters. How we plan and design for waste can impact how much we make, if we sort it, and what can be reused. On the level of design creating spaces that ease the process of waste sorting would be ideal. Creating waste rooms or waste areas that are well ventilated with clearly labeled separation systems will encourage people to spend the extra minute separating their organics, recyclables, and other waste. Adding a sink to rinse your hands after separating that waste would be a huge add on benefit to those sorting. By designing fixtures with built in separation systems for organic, recyclable, and other waste we can reduce the effort in even separating out the stream. Designing products with less packaging and conditioning consumers to ask for less packaging will lower the amount of waste generated. On a municipal level requiring new development to incorporate organic waste separation facilities into their new multifamily development allows access to a larger community of citizens. Creating policy change that encourages complimentary use of waste produced at commercial or industrial scale be it heat, greywater, or organic is another exciting example. Growing Power in Milwaukee, WI takes in large amounts of coffee grounds, brewers waste, or food waste and through composting and vermicomposting produces rich, productive soil.

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In choosing to make these policy, design, and personal changes we can address the landscape of waste in our culture and move towards creating more sustainable cities. Re-conceptualizing what is waste, what can be reused or re-purposed, and how we dispose of what can’t be reused will compliment the social change in relation to waste.

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About jessmichalak

Jess became intrigued by what makes cities so engaging while studying architecture in college. In realizing that cities offer us an amazing opportunity for human interaction she realized what makes her driven to work in urban contexts; the people. Jess is a concurrent master's degree in Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Washington.

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