Rethinking Your Building’s Waste Infrastructure

By Matt Baker

We often think of waste in our buildings as a burden, as something that must be dealt with. “I want to disavow that notion and talk about how you can think of your waste stream as an asset in your organization, not a liability,” said Kevin Dick.

Dick, who manages certifications and energy management programs at the Delta Institute, was speaking at the Building Green Chicago Conference in April. He joined panelists Mark Bettin, Vice President, Engineering/Sustainability at Merchandise Mart Properties and Carter O’Brien, the Sustainability Manager in the Field Museum of Natural History’s Science and Education division.

Whetstone Park Dumpsters“A better way to think about waste is to understand it as a material flow,” Dick said. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more one recycles, the less that material things cost because it’s much more expensive to extract virgin materials and manufacture something, not to mention all the embodied energy entailed with that.

When considering a building’s operations and the size of its waste stream, these factors are all magnified. “If you are able to align all of the interests in your recycling stream and the waste stream in your building, you do get those assets out,” said Dick. Of course, this comes with the added energy-saving and greenhouse gas reducing benefits.

The Merchandise Mart has been modifying its waste handling for years to the point where they have installed a scale with which they track their waste every night. The Mart does building-wide composting and source separation, even down to furniture that comes out of offices, which is then donated to the Rebuilding Exchange.

One of the hardest challenges for the Mart, as in most buildings, has been the people who occupy it. So in 2011, they started tracking the recycling rates of major tenants and by floor, data they then shared with the tenants to encourage and motivate them.

It’s not enough, they learned, to track the building’s waste stream sporadically; regular and repeated tracking has shown how the numbers can be deceiving. “What we see is rates per floor can vary a lot month by month,” Bettin said. “Doing a periodic audit is not getting the full picture.” Last year, the building’s total recycling rate was over 80% by weight, but a lot of that came from construction waste which is easier to divert. Excluding construction, the Mart recycled about 30% of its consumables—items like bottles and cans.

Their goal is to get that number from 30% to over 50% this year. “We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Bettin said. “We will have a lot of meetings with tenants to see that rate improve.” The Mart’s management office in the building has been weighing and measuring its waste nightly since 2007. Bettin plans to use that data as a benchmark for the other tenants, and to show them that it’s really not that difficult to take similar steps.

“The reason that the Merchandise Mart has such a big challenge is the uses are so disparate,” Dick said, referring to the office, retail, restaurant, showroom, tradeshow and other roles that spaces in the mart take. Comparison between buildings can be tricky and owners and managers should strive to improve over what their buildings are already doing.

The Field Museum is a different animal entirely with its own set of challenges. Between 1.3 and 2.1 million visitors come through the doors every year. Many of them stick around to eat, so the biggest opportunities, in terms of reducing what the museum sends to landfill, were the two on-site restaurants.

When the museum first started to take a look at their waste stream, there were two well-known chain restaurants on site. “They probably wanted to do well,” said O’Brien, “but when you have 2,000 people coming in within 90 minutes, that’s the least of their problems.”

After consulting with a zero waste kitchen, O’Brien and his colleagues came up with a multi-year plan to phase in more stringent controls on waste. Ten years later, their recycling rates are up, contamination rates are down and they recently started a composting program.

Delta Institute was an early partner in helping the museum address its waste. They helped perform waste audits, which involves dumpster diving at the end of the day to see what is actually in the site’s garbage, and what could have been diverted.

The waste audit also includes watching staff and visitors to see how they interact with the garbage, recycling and compost bins. During one session, Dick and O’Brien watched a visitor who went to dispose of an empty (and non-recyclable) Sun Chips bag. He paused at the bins, unsure of what to do until eventually going to toss it in with the recycling.

At this particular site, there were shadow boxes on the wall, displaying the various items that should go into each bin. “The only thing missing was a Sun Chips bag,” O’Brien said. The shadow boxes have since been removed and replaced with larger, clearer signs.

Unlike the Mart, which is one of the largest buildings in the city, the Field Museum is at a premium for space. There is only one elevator on site, for example, which is used by visitors as well as custodians and staff. With composting now under way at two restaurants and plans to spread the practice to the rest of the museum, space becomes a concern. “They may end up actually having the opposite problem,” said Dick. “They may have too much waste going into the compost. With limited dock space, you have to be careful how you use it.”

Just understanding how people interact with the space and why they do the things they do can help you to design better. “You have to continue to observe and redesign and ideate and change based on what your observations are,” Said Dick. “This is the design process, going back and changing over and over based on your inputs and user experience.”

Photo: Stephen Wolfe

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