design ingredients for sustainable waste management – i

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Urban areas concentrate not only economic and social production, but also waste production. Waste that is often addressed at the end of a long chain of actors- manufacturers, retailers, consumers, disposers, municipal councils, collectors, recyclers. And thus waste’s final destination and the impacts of the same are made invisible. The problem of what to do with waste is externalised by actors along the chain of waste production, an externalisation aided by structures that promote it; or that are not present to encourage better waste handling.

Inspired by a semester-long research project on the sources, amounts, destinations and impacts of Wellesley College’s waste, and with memories still fresh of my confusion from all the different categorisations of waste  in the US while studying there, I decided to investigate what role design has in influencing the outcomes of waste handling in public urban spaces. I wanted to know what the qualities of a good trash can design might be, and what cities needed to be doing to get their waste options in line with their waste goals.

I observed various waste management options (reduce, reuse, recycling, garbage, compost) and their uses (or not) in public spaces in New Orleans, USA; São Paulo and Curitiba, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa and Hà Nội, Vietnam- cities I was in as part of an educational programme. This often meant staring into trash and recycle bins, and standing with a notebook and pen in hand close to others for an hour at a time watching what people did with their waste. I also spoke with city residents and people working in waste management to find out more about the choices individuals and cities made. The insights I gained from both of these inform an analysis of how design can be used to achieve desirable waste management goals including a reduction of waste ending up in landfills; a reduction of emissions such as methane and dioxins; resource recovery and job creation; and internalisation of the impacts of current waste management practices.

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