No one wakes up saying, ‘I want to make some waste! Eutrophy some lakes! Deforest the Amazon!’ It’s about understanding why waste is created, and what structures are in place to encourage it, or what’s not in place to create a situation where we can reduce our waste. – D.Hazzard, Wellesley College ‘12
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.
I considered elements such as physical shape and size, number, placement, graphics and language employed on observed waste options. I concluded that design, besides being present, needs to be responsive to context and needs, clearly communicate, and effectively share responsibility for waste handling in order to help attain the goals of waste reduction in urban areas. But what exactly does this look like in reality and is there an ideal design for waste management?
Such dual bin structures for organic and inorganic waste, coloured green and orange respectively, were in the park surrounding HoanKiem Lake in HàNội’s French Quarter. The two bins are of the same size. In a public park such as this where people participate in a variety of activities such as walking, jogging, having meals and picture taking, there is potential for a variety of wastes to be generated. The provision of two catch-all options, broadly defined, indicates that this variety of activities, and therefore of waste was taken into consideration.
At a bus park in Curitiba, where people would be boarding and alighting from journeys, and seats were also provided for the general public, the same consideration for a variety of wastes generated was present. In addition to anticipating a variety of waste, the design also anticipated that recyclable waste would make up the larger proportion of this. Hence the non-recyclables bin was about half the size of the recyclables bin. In both cases, physical design was responding to probable needs by using size and shape elements.
Adequate presence (number)
Litter bins in each of the cities were often numerous and replicated. For example, black fleur-de-lis’d litter bins lined the streets all over the French Quarter in New Orleans; as did ‘Zibi’ the Ostrich litter bins in Cape Town’s CBD.
Park areas in cities also had many bins present. In the small park Praça do Japão in Curitiba, there were eight wooden slatted litter bins dotting the landscape. In these spaces, there wasn’t a lack of disposal options and all waste discarded could potentially be captured.
Providing the same waste options throughout a large area, such as the ‘Zibi’ bins in Cape Town’s CBD contributed to coherence in waste management. Users would get used to seeing the same waste options and use them correctly easier than they would where waste options differed across the city therefore requiring corresponding and frequent behaviour modification.
In a hostel in Cape Town that I stayed at for a few days, there was evident anticipation of where the largest volumes of different types of waste would be produced. The main non-recyclables bin was in the kitchen, as was the recyclables bin providing for tin cans, plastics and glass disposal. The greatest volume of these waste items would likely be the result of various kitchen activities. Paper recycling bins on the other hand were placed along corridors and close to common rooms where activities that would generate paper waste, such as newspaper reading, printing, etc. were likely to occur.
The placement of disposal options at the Tedx Cape Town 2012 event held at the Free World Design Centre also responded to need. Whereas the main disposal area was to one side of the space and glass, paper and plastics recycling was available, the tin cans recycling bin was on the opposite side and next to the cooler full of canned drinks. So as event-goers picked up their canned drink they were reminded of where to place the can once they were done.
The food court in Century City Mall, Cape Town was an example of responsiveness in both presence and placement. In this space where food waste was likely to be generated in large volumes, six dual compartment bins providing options for food waste (only) and for recyclables were placed around the eating area.
Issues with Responsiveness
It is possible for the same design to be responsive in one aspect and not responsive in another.
This 5 bin disposal option in front of the Museu do Afrobrasil in Parque do Ibirapuera, São Paulo receives a lot of traffic from people entering and leaving the park because it is on the path leading to the gate. It is therefore well placed to capture the waste generated by the large number of passers-by (need). Its compartmentalisation into separate waste categories, the small size of bins, and the fact that it’s the only one along that path however, constrain where people can dispose of waste. On an afternoon observation, the plastics bin was overflowing while other bins were barely half full.This design was therefore not responsive in shape, size or number, even though it was responsive in placement.
So what should a city’s waste management options look like? It would combine the adequate presence of NOLA’s French Quarter fleur-de-lis’d bins and Cape Town’s Zibi bins with the adequate sizing of the HoanKiem Lake bins. Even better is to use the differentiated sizing of Curitiba’s FamiliaFolha receptacles accompanied by an educational campaign to reinforce the benefits of and how to separate waste.
Wangũi Kamonji is an independent researcher and Wellesley College graduate of environmental studies and urban studies. She blogs about her encounters in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam.
Featured and final image courtesy of A. Bentz. All other images courtesy of Wangũi Kamonji.