Updated: Apr 19
In this edition of spotlight, we talk to Clare Miflin, an architect and systems thinker who led a multi-disciplinary effort to create the Zero Waste Design Guidelines for New York City. She implements the guidelines through her consultancy ThinkWoven, and, Center for Zero Waste Design.
Can you tell us more about your background and how you came to start ThinkWoven and the Center for Zero Waste Design?
I am an architect by training. I’m originally from the UK and I came to NYC after a short stint in Berlin where I met my husband who happens to be a New Yorker.
It was a little disappointing to start with because New York City seemed so behind compared to things that were going on in Europe in terms of architecture and sustainability. But eventually, I found a small firm, Kiss + Cathcart, and we worked on a lot of really sustainable high-performance buildings. They were leaders in integrating solar panels into building design, such as in the facade or the roof, and we moved on from there, thinking about how the skin of a building could be productive and get you to net zero energy or water. We even worked on for instance, having a double skin facade growing hydroponic vegetables within it.
One day, I was moderating a panel and it was about New York City collecting organic waste. I asked a question: “I just did a multi-family building with a chute for trash, another chute for metal, glass and plastic, and then another for paper. We did that to make it equally convenient to throw out these three streams but what should we do about organic waste? Should I have put in a fourth chute? What would have been the best thing?”
There were no good answers, and I felt that if we weren’t thinking about this in our highly sustainable architecture firm, then most architects weren’t, and we've got to give some guidance as everyone can’t be expected to figure it out on their own. And that started the Zero Waste Design Guidelines (ZWDG) process.
I got a group of volunteers together, and luckily, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter’s Committee on the Environment said "Yes, you can do it through our organisation." That gave us access to architects and the Department of Sanitation. We brainstormed the issues and visited some buildings to see what the issues were and what the guidelines should cover. We shared the proposal with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and they put me in touch with the Rockefeller Foundation and we got their support to develop the guidelines. During all the research I decided there's so much more to do here, that I changed career direction .
That was what led me to setting up ThinkWoven, my personal consultancy and the Center for the Zero Waste Design.
This work isn’t about just one building, but how it relates to a much wider system. I want to take the guidelines to other cities and spend the rest of my life solving this problem.
That was really inspiring! Can you tell us more about the Zero Waste Design Guidelines, and why designing for zero waste is so important for cities?
I think this question is a really good one because designing for zero waste is especially important for cities, which tend to be high-density areas where space is a premium. It is not so difficult to design for zero waste in low-density areas.
I found here that nobody was thinking about zero waste design. They were focusing on behavioural change through education or policies. Those are important but many things can be resolved through design changes.
The Zero Waste Design Guidelines were created by engaging more than 100 collaborators from architects to waste haulers and building managers, to address the role of design in NYC's zero waste to landfills by 2030 goal. They serve as a resource to help designers and planners work toward circular material flows in buildings. We have several diagrams and case studies available to help them plan out the best way to design for zero waste for their context, whether residential or commercial buildings.
What are some waste infrastructure and design problems that exist at the moment?
In New York City, they only pick up food waste in small bins because they empty them by hand into the back of the truck, they can't be placed at the bottom of a chute. You also have to have a lot of space for these bins and labour to wash them, and that's a design issue.
How can we persuade the city that they should be collect larger containers, and on-street containers, because it would be more efficient and affordable? For many buildings, they don't have the staff or space to manage the small bins - moving, emptying and cleaning them - so it is an equity issue too. The way the system is designed in New York City, well-resourced buildings can achieve zero waste, but it's much more difficult for under-resourced buildings.
Design just plays a large role not only in the management of waste, but also in things like reusable dish-ware.
New York City serves a million meals a day in its school systems, and they used to use polystyrene or Styrofoam trays, which meant a million styrofoam trays were going into landfill every single day, which is crazy!
Cafeteria Culture, a grassroots campaign, was really pushing to change that, and worked with the city and local design students to develop compostable plates, as there weren’t enough dishwashers for reusables dishware. Now all NYC schools use compostable plates.
That was also was a design issue since the school design guide didn't require dishwashers. If the infrastructure is not there, you can't have reusable dishes. We've seen that in offices too - not having dishwashers in your office pantry and supplying compostable, because you think it's greener. There are all these misconceptions but design is critical for many of these things.
Read more about how waste is a design flaw here.
What are some challenges that you have faced in coming up with the ZWDG for New York City?
The first challenge was to get everybody's perspective. The people who move waste around are really busy and they were not going to come to a workshop. We managed that by visiting 40 buildings and following the path of waste, talking to people as they were working. Getting the connections also took a little time, but people who really care about waste helped to spread the message. There were also challenges in implementation, which included getting the city agencies and the systems of collection on board for instance, to change the type of containers they pick-up waste in. That's a huge issue, and it's so difficult to make happen.
Indeed, it’s a huge challenge to bring people together to align on this issue. We know that digital technologies and statistical tools are becoming crucial to sustainable urban design. You created the Zero Waste Calculator to help measure waste in buildings. Can you tell us more about this tool?
That was right at the beginning of the guidelines because we knew we would have to plan for waste. Architects were asking - “How do we know how much waste the building is going to produce?” If it is an existing business, we can do an audit and find out the amount of waste they produce. But if we are designing a building and don't know who the tenants are going to be, but we know there will be a grocery store, 10 restaurants and an office with a thousand people, there is not much information out there to get an idea of how much waste it's going to produce. That's why we came up with this tool to help designers and architect plan for waste management.
Once we had the tool for the area, it made total sense to include how one can reduce that area by using compaction, bailing, or organic waste pre-treatment. It’s a really useful tool, but it's still difficult because the data varies so much - for instance, in one scenario the office might print everything while in another, they are doing everything digitally. I would love to add more guidelines and factors like adjusting the paper generator slider if your office is all digital, or adjusting for packaging waste if you use all reusable dishware, for example.
This way, you can really see how much waste would be reduced if you applied the strategies and adjusted the calculator accordingly.
I tried the Zero Waste Calculator and I thought it was super cool. How else can we incorporate digital technologies when designing for zero waste city?
I always say that waste is way behind energy or water, where we have systems of tracking, getting feedback and submetering to give you information that helps to change strategies, systems and behaviour. In restaurants for instance, we can have a back-of-house food waste tracking system. Chefs can track the food waste and take note of it. For example, if you are throwing away masses of salmon on a Friday, you need to put that into your tracker so that you know to either buy less salmon or to figure out something to do with it before it goes bad. You can also tie that into your procurement through a procurement software, so you can really see how much money you can save.
Systems for tracking when and how much waste is coming out of your building are good as well. There's a great one coming from the Etsy case study, where the housekeeping staff collect the waste and they put it into a bin that has a scale in it, and a tablet for them to tap what waste is thrown into the bin. There is also an open-source software called Divertsy that helps to generate their diversion rates. They display that right by the waste bin, so all the staff know how much waste they've diverted and their diversion targets.
I think tools that give feedback are really important. There are also sensors in containers so that you can be efficient with how often you empty your large compactors. You may come back and empty them when they are half full if you don't have sensors. Having these sensors can help with routing, reduce the amount of trucks on the street and the cost too.
I really hope that Singapore can implement some of these things that you've talked about. Since every city has different buildings and waste collection systems, and the ZWDG are mainly adapted for New York City - how you think the ZWDG can be adapted to each city?
We tried to make the strategies generic so they can apply to any city, but obviously, how they are applied will be different depending on the context. We have started talking with Hong Kong, Singapore and the San Francisco Bay Area, but we haven't applied them to another city yet.
To do that, I think it would mean figuring out the context, drawing up building typologies for how waste is dealt with, and what the rules are. In Singapore, there is now a new rule that in larger multi-family developments, they need to have pneumatic tubes for trash and recycling, which is something similar to what we had in New York City - having equal convenience for those two streams, but forgetting organics. It’s a similar problem, but the rules are different, and how waste is picked up is different, which makes the solutions different.
Another thing that is so important is motivation, and that often comes from rules. How much free floor area can you get for your waste equipment? Is there any incentive to do on-site processing of organics? I know in Singapore, there's a requirement to leave space for food waste equipment in bigger hospitality and food-producing businesses, but how is that space best used? Is the food waste going to go down the drain or made into fertiliser? I think it's a process of figuring out the needs of the city based on context. Of course, you need to work with local stakeholders because half the process in the guidelines was just connecting people with resources for future work.
You worked with an interdisciplinary team when developing the ZWDG – what was challenging or interesting about this experience?
I loved it! As an architect, we always work with a somewhat multidisciplinary team of engineers and clients, but this was much, much broader.
It just opened my eyes and I realised that if you really get the perspective of everybody on the team, you think about things in different ways.
I was fixed on the idea that we have to have equal convenience disposal, and then a building manager argued that they had a system that worked well with collecting organics at the front desk. He said there's no way he was going to put his organics bin in this small waste room, as it's not ventilated. What is most helpful is really understanding what the motivations of every player in the system are.
What is your vision of an ideal city? What can governments, businesses and individuals can do to achieve this?
I guess an ideal city for me is one that is really sustainable and the resources are circular. For NYC, we don’t need to produce a lot of food since we have a big Hudson Valley that has a lot of small farms. We need a scale of sustainability that makes sense. For water, we have a big watershed and reservoirs upstate that our water comes from. For energy, we have some wind energy and solar.
An ideal city will not only be fully sustainable in terms of resources but also have people participate. The city can set up a framework like the community composting here in New York City.
It's just a framework that encourages people to come together to compost collected waste, so they can make the park more sustainable and the soil better with healthier trees. If you have a framework where everybody's creativity is involved, that's my ideal city.
In one particular building’s weekly meeting, a porter (someone who deals with the waste), noticed that old people in the building had problems opening the raccoon-proof catch on the waste bin lids. He brought this up at the meeting and they asked, “Okay, do you have any ideas of how we can solve this?” The porter said - “Yeah, why don't we get rid of the catch and put magnets?”
They reconfigured all their standard issued bins from Department of Sanitation with those magnets, because a raccoon-proof catch was not necessary anymore since they were indoors. Nobody at the Department of Sanitation would have thought of that.
To get to zero waste, we need insights, investment and creativity from everyone.
That fellow must have felt great to have solved the problem. The Department of Sanitation said this is great, we can use this in other places too. I feel like it becomes a virtuous cycle if you really allow everybody to participate.
I really like what you said. Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, and it has adversely affected many industries. Did the pandemic impact your vision or work on designing zero waste buildings?
A little bit. There are so many more disposables now compared to before. I was already on the idea that we can't expect everybody to bring their own bottles, cups, containers or bowls everywhere they go. We need systems for reusables so you can drop off and pick them up conveniently when you get your take-outs. The pandemic just made that need stronger to me. We really need to have systems that are hygienic, for instance, washed by a third-party or the restaurants, and then you can drop them off along with your waste.
I really hope that there will be a solution for our disposables problem. Do you think cities can use design to prevent another pandemic?
I think that design can play a huge role in making the population of the city healthier. So much of our linear consumption system contributes to bad health. For instance, there is pollution around waste transfer stations and pest control chemicals in buildings. The cockroaches contribute to asthma a lot here in the city.
Converting organic waste to healthy soil is also something that I've been looking at. If you can separate your food waste and compost it with landscape waste, it makes your soils better. Things that grow and compost in healthy soils are much healthier to eat. It's similar to the microbiome in your gut - if that's good, you're healthier. I think we can try to make cities and citizens healthier and greener with better soil and systems and that could make the impacts of a pandemic less bad.
Hopefully, cities will learn to use design to prevent pandemics soon. What you have shared was really inspirational. What advice do you have for young architects looking to venture into the field of zero-waste design?
I would say, first, it's not really yet a field, so you will be a pioneer in whichever city you live in. You will need to be flexible and persuasive. You will need to collaborate and listen to others and figure out how you can make your case.
For instance, here in New York City, I've been collaborating with Christina Grace, who works on food waste and food service business waste reduction. There's now a rule that if you produce a lot, you will have to separate it. However, the cost is so expensive for organics as compared to trash that any equipment you put in to do on-site composting or converting into a fertiliser or even anaerobic digestion has a really short payback.
It's the designer that has to figure out where the important points are so that you can really convince the developer or a client that this needs to happen.
I would say, it's a field that people are beginning to realise the importance of. So just get in there and figure it out and realise that it's an evolving field that you are contributing to.
That’s some great advice for budding zero waste designers. You have achieved so much in your stellar career, what is your proudest moment to date?
Thank you! I think my proudest moment was when the ZWDG were launched. We collaborated with Open House New York, which is an organisation that holds tours of interesting buildings for the public one day a year, but also each year has a theme and event series. It just happened that the theme that year was waste, so they were doing tours of waste transfer facilities along with all these different waste-related events in the city.
Then they decided the launch of the guidelines could be their final event - it was kind of a hopeful thing to end the year's programme with. They had a connection with a university which has movie theatres and they let us use their large 500-seat theatre for our event! We sold out the entire venue. It had the marquee outside, where it normally says the movie title, but for the event, it was lit up saying Zero Waste Design Guidelines.
We were on stage and there were 500 people in the movie theatre seats, and it just felt great that so many people were interested in this topic.
I’m sure it must have been a really memorable moment. Let's finish off with something fun - what is one thing, be it a quote, a person or a book, that inspires you to continue with your work?
This is a good one. I did a Biomimicry degree while I was developing the ZWDG. That was super helpful because we were learning about ecosystems and how nature has no waste because it circles all resources. Through that, I found a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a botanist from Potawatomi Nation, a Native American region, so she had her indigenous knowledge and then she learned to be a botanist through western knowledge and university. She then tries to connect those two pathways of knowledge together. I love that book so much.
Right at the end, I went to see her speak, and she had 3 questions to be asked of her. We had to put the questions in paper and they were picked out by the moderator, and I kind of knew that the last question was going to be my question.
And the question was "What gives you hope in this times?" She told this beautiful story of how she'd asked this old maple tree in her backyard, "what should we do?", and the maple tree had told her "we have to make good soil." That just answered the question perfectly for me! I can take that literally in terms of organic waste or figuratively in making good frameworks so that good things can grow for communities.
That’s my mantra now - make good soil.