Staten Island Transfer Station. Every day around 10,000 tons of refuse is collected by DSNY trucks and dumped at waste transfer stations. At this station 750 tons a day are loaded onto railcars to begin their journey to a South Carolina landfill.  

Executive Summary

Waste is a design flaw: in our packaging, in our products and in our buildings and cities. Ecosystems can recycle materials indefinitely in circular loops, but the human-designed system trashes 99% of the materials extracted from the earth within six months. The Zero Waste Design Guidelines address the crucial role that the design of our buildings and city play in achieving circular material loops. ←  Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 1999)

Every day, tens of thousands of truckloads of materials—brand-new goods, clothes and food—enter our city to be parceled out in boxes, delivered urgently and consumed. Bags of discards line our streets, attracting vermin and monopolizing valuable public space. Thousands more heavy collection trucks take these materials to waste transfer stations, clogging the streets, polluting the air and degrading the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods. Most of these materials are trucked to landfills in distant states, where they end up as trash, polluting the soil and air. This process costs New Yorkers over a billion dollars a year in taxes. Through design, this system could be transformed. Discarded materials are a valuable resource that can be directly reused, fixed or recycled into new materials, compost and energy—while providing jobs within the city. ←  Most Landfills that meet New York City criteria for long-term contracts are on average over 400 miles away. Department of Sanitation Budget was $2.2 billion for fiscal year 2012. Citizens Budget Commission, “Taxes in, Garbage Out,” 5/2012, 11, 2, link.

New York City has set a bold goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2030. To achieve this, we need to design our buildings to better manage the movement of materials through them. Designing for material flows in our buildings is not the same as designing for energy and water flows. Materials are mainly moved by human labor, and they are not uniform—they can be useful, hazardous, recyclable or food for worms—so need to be sorted to be resources rather than trash. Zero waste requires an integrated approach with architects, planners and building operators working in tandem to design a coherent system in which materials are easily separated, handled, stored and collected in their own streams.

The process of developing the Zero Waste Design Guidelines has been collaborative and extensive. It has involved visits to more than 60 buildings, discussions with porters and supers and the distillation of findings into typologies. Through multidisciplinary workshops, architects, planners, developers, city officials, building owners and operators helped develop and evaluate strategies for each typology, which the guidelines present.

Building Design: Planning for Separation, Movement and Storage of Waste in Our Buildings

Today’s architects routinely strive to reduce embodied and ongoing energy and water usage in their designs. Similarly, they should design their buildings to reduce the ongoing waste that’s generated and managed within them, as well as the waste from the construction and demolition process itself. Design can change human behavior and incorporate economic and social incentives for wasting less and recycling more.

As additional material streams such as organic waste, textiles and e-waste are collected, we need our buildings to facilitate their separation. In most buildings, trash disposal is top priority, which makes diverting other materials less convenient. Organics present new challenges: Heavier than other recycling streams, they also decompose, thus need to be containerized, ventilated and collected more often.

Good design makes it easy to separate discarded materials for reuse and recycling. The waste calculator provided in the guidelines facilitates this by providing designers with a tool for calculating the volumes of all the streams that need to be captured and managed. Best practice strategies show how designers and building operators can plan for material flows through buildings by reducing wasted materials, separating waste streams and compacting them for easier transport and storage. They also show how to provide for efficient collection of the separated waste streams.

Collection and Urban Design: Planning for Waste Collection on Our Streets

The vast majority of our waste is moved out of our buildings in bags, stacked on sidewalks and tossed by hand into trucks. As their presence is temporary, city planners have traditionally left waste collection out of street design. Nonetheless, how bags are set out on and picked up from sidewalks and streets has a marked effect on the quality of urban life and the amount of waste diverted. As our city’s density increases, this solution becomes less and less tenable.

Moving toward containerization, with its use of wheeled and large compacting containers, is one way to manage waste in public space—reducing the amount of precollection handling required and allowing for automated pickup. Many existing buildings lack adequate space for containers and access to equally convenient recycling and organics collection. Consolidating waste in facilities shared by buildings or neighborhoods could expand the adoption of best practices beyond new construction. Planners could incorporate this infrastructure into master plans, urban renewal projects and street design as an amenity.


Design has a crucial role to play in transforming our city, along with its systems and citizens, to reach zero waste. Design can compel us to change our behavior and consumption patterns so we reduce, share, reuse and assign space for managing discards so they too can be reused or recycled.

The Zero Waste Design Guidelines aim to serve as both inspiration and resource to help designers, operators and planners collaborate on modifying existing buildings and designing new ones that dramatically reduce our waste and work toward circular material flows. To lessen the significant friction in our current system, this necessarily iterative process will demand the commitment and creativity of a wide range of New Yorkers.

These guidelines embody OneNYC’s goal: to be “the most sustainable big city in the world and a global leader in the fight against climate change.” Though drafted for New York, they are designed to be adaptable to other cities as well.


Next Section: What is Zero Waste? →