Waste(d) Space

by Molly Brennan

MKThink Operations

Americans throw out a staggering 2,600 lbs. of waste each year per person. That is equivalent to throwing out a new Honda Civic per person each year. Across a lifetime that means approximately 102 tons of trash per person.[1] And that’s all at our personal discretion.

Current statistics from the EPA show that a measly 2% of our waste is recycled, with an overwhelming majority of waste ending up in landfills. However, that doesn’t need to be the case. The graph below details U.S. landfill waste by type. As you can see, most of the 102 tons of “rubbish” destined for landfills could be reused, recycled, or composted.

Why should we care about our 102 ton waste footprint?

A few reasons:

  • 10% of the world’s oil supply is used to make & transport disposable plastics.
  • 5.6 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, contributing to serious health repercussions for marine life, with potential for disastrous effects to the marine food chain.
  • 4 million people could be fed annually from the 96 billion pounds of food waste that Americans discard if only 5% were donated to food banks or kitchens.

Invaluable amounts of economically viable materials are buried each year in the U.S. For example, every year landfills receive enough steel to level and restore Manhattan, enough wood to heat 50 million homes for 20 years, and enough aluminum to rebuild the entire commercial air fleet four times over.[2]

Taking a quick look in the mirror, [SU1] the 30 employees at MKThink share 17 trash bins, 18 small recycle bins, and 3 compost bins. Most people share a trash and recycle bin with a coworker, while only a few employees have their own.

Looking at the previous paragraph, a few questions naturally emerge: Is this a typical ratio of # of trash/recycle-bins-to-employee within an office environment? Do the waste bins sufficiently limit our penchant to pitch trash, or are they enabling a culture of wastefulness?

We don’t know. There is no centralized database that we’ve seen that adequately quantifies our waste and qualifies the space used for waste related fixtures in U.S. offices. Standard agreements for architectural services do not typically include the programming or design of space used for waste management, and most (if not all) clients do not request it. The fact that waste management is typically less-than-resolved prior to each project’s substantial completion date is reflective of the attitude most Americans have towards waste; we rarely think about it.[3]

How can we change?

A variety of solutions have been proposed to reduce the huge quantities of valuable materials we bury in landfills. These efforts mark significant steps forward in waste diversion; however, widespread benefits to the economy, environment, and energy-use require a cultural shift towards both waste diversion and reduction. A cultural shift cannot occur when people are unaware of the amount of waste they are producing. Simply communicating the statistics of waste is a powerful motivator for change.

Architecture and design firms are positioned to leverage an ever-increasing awareness of waste to guide a wide spectrum of individuals, businesses, schools, and organizations in making optimized solutions around waste reduction and management.

Some easy ideas for starting the conversation:

  • Promote or provide content for conversations and trainings on waste to raise employee awareness and increase individual investment in the cause.[4]
  • Learn about how cities like San Francisco have been successful at decreasing landfill waste by 70%.[5]
  • Collect monthly facilities data and share the statistics on waste collection, diversion, and composting.
  • Program waste management spaces early on with an Architect. Allocating space up front may allow clients to visualize how waste bins occupy valuable real estate. Or go even further and compute the dollar amount per square foot that is taken by waste receptacles.
  • Encourage friendly competition between projects of similar scopes to see who can produce the least amount of waste
  • Design and/or specify attractive three-holed waste receptacles with clear signage to discourage trash volume and encourage recycling & composting.

Here at MKThink we are beginning to incorporate waste optimization into our data services with a goal of achieving smart resource use.  This starts with measuring how much waste the client produces and where it comes from. Then we compare the data to other workplace parameters such as building type, department, activity location, as well as other cultural, architectural, and environmental parameters. Based on the client’s organizational priorities, we create a strategy to optimize their waste stream, moving towards maximum value creation per unit of waste creation.  The answer may not lie in zero-waste, but it definitely lies in achieving smarter resource use.

Innovative Waste Receptacles

As a firm that strives for sustainable practices, it is our responsibility to start the conversation on waste reduction.

[4] http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/publications/Disposal/34106006.pdf

[5] http://www.spur.org/publications/library/article/toward_zero_waste


[1] http://www.storyofstuff.org/

 [SU1]Above you’re talking about tons of waste created.  I would either calculate the volume of waste we create, or begin with “Here at MKThink…” or maybe you transition by saying, “Let’s step back from global catastrophe and look at waste in the office environment…”


[2] All listed statistics from: Garbology, Edward Humes, Penguin Group, 2012


[3] “The State of Garbage in America,” a joint study by BioCycle and the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University, by Rob van Harren, Nickolas Themlis and Nora Goldstein, published in BioCycle, October 2010.