Rethinking Waste Through Design

Rethinking Waste Through Design

Caroline O'Donnell (Cornell University, USA) and Dillon Pranger (Cornell University, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6995-4.ch005


This chapter will study the proliferation of architectural follies that use recycled or recyclable materials in a move to promote better practices in waste and recycling. Given the slow uptake of this impetus in the architectural world proper, the text will investigate the obstacles in engaging in materially sustainable practices in the construction industry as well as case studies for rethinking currently problematic materials. However, while some improvements have been made in the construction industry's use of recycled materials, the industry often dismisses the afterlife of materials used throughout the process. What are the motivations of the industry and how can we incentivize circular thinking in an industry that produces hundreds of millions of tons of waste per year in the US?
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Current States

Global material crises are imminent. In the very near future, recycling will no longer be a choice made by those concerned about the environment, but a necessity for all. At the current rate of mining, for example, it is estimated that approximately 19 years of copper, 10 years of tin, and 10 years of zinc remain in the earth’s crust (Frondel, 2007). Materials are finite and we will soon need to find alternative solutions to the acute problem of global consumption and disposal.

Meanwhile, global production of waste continues to climb. Each year, 1.2 billion metric tons of waste are generated globally, a figure expected to rise exponentially to 3.6 billion metric tons by 2100, as developing countries begin to urbanize, industrialize, and consume (Simmons, 2016). And while the consequences of waste on the environment have been well documented—toxins from plastics and other solid waste leach into our food and water-systems, massive amounts of energy are consumed through its global transport, marine and wildlife systems are disrupted by foreign materials—we choose, en-masse, to proceed with our disposable lifestyles.

As the world’s most wasteful nation, the United States produces 3.2 kilograms of trash per capita per day, a total of 92 metric tons of garbage per lifetime (Humes, 2012). Of the 234 million metric tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generated in the U. S. in 2014, over 80 million metric tons were recycled and composted, equivalent to a 34.6% recycling rate (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2016).

The apparent lack of concern for the problem of waste can be attributed in part to policies that remove waste from our everyday experience. Besides single stream waste systems, which reduce our interaction with our household waste to a minimum, many U.S. cities charge a flat fee or tax to pay for the voluntary disposal of trash and have little incentive or disincentive to motivate participation (Simmons, 2016). Far beyond the prying eyes of the cities, landfills fill up, resources are squandered, and environments are contaminated: but the consequences of these actions are not significant in our daily lives. This invisibilization of trash cannot but promote passive behaviors in the home, in industry, and in the specifications of designers.

U.S. policies around recycling differ significantly from their European counterparts and result in markedly different statistics. The fact that European countries recycle significantly more can be attributed to cultural differences, education, and any number of incalculable factors, but, in general, European countries have stricter policies that involve increased engagement with recyclable materials in the form of multi-stream separation. In Germany, for example, the consumer separates glass into colors as part of the recycling practice. In England, separate bins are provided by City Councils to collect food-scraps at a municipal level (The 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP), 2013).

But one need not look so far afield for a how-to guide. Some west coast cities have recycling rates approaching 80%. This high figure is partially attributable to California’s state mandated waste diversion quotas: a 1989 law that required cuts in landfill loads by 50% before 2000; and another law in 2011, which increased that goal to 75% before 2020 (AB-341, 2011). In 2007, San Francisco completely banned disposable plastic bags (later a statewide mandate) and in 2009, the city enacted laws which made recycling and composting mandatory. Across the west coast, cities from San Jose to Portland have increased their recycling rates to above 70% through explicit public programs and policy change (Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, 2016).

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