Research methods

There are a range of data collection methods that are appropriate and useful in the context of organic waste and UTS. Briefly, here are some examples and how they might be relevant in this context.

Methods

Physical audit: as used for the posts in Category A, when dealing with the products of a process, a simple and reliable method of collecting data on those products is to record them, eg. at the point of disposal. This can be done for an individual, as in the blog posts, or through observation for a large sample or population or through semi-automated solutions such as bottle recycling bins that count the number of bottles deposited into them.

Literature review: as used for the posts in Category C, literature reviews are critical to gaining an understanding of research that has already been done in the focus area – and therefore areas of study that may not need to be duplicated. (Medialab Amsterdam) Additionally, a literature review can provide the building blocks for further research, by shedding a light on areas that might not have been considered fully before. In terms of this project, through my own literature review I have discovered that definitions, methods, technologies and mechanisms for organic waste management vary widely across the world and even between jurisdictions in Australia, making a literature review valuable simply from the perspective of identifying the range of what is possible in designing waste management solutions.

Surveys and interviews: moving from the system and technology design side of waste management to the critical question of user interaction, surveys and interviews are critical to gaining a current and grounded understanding of how people interact with existing waste management systems and how they might react to potential new systems and designs. I believe one of the key challenges we will face in creating a design intervention for organic waste management at UTS is in engaging the university community in efficient use of the system, for example, waste separation at the point of disposal.

Environmental scanning: researching and assessing waste management from a design perspective requires us to also step outside our discipline to a degree and look at as much of the existing system as we can in order to understand where we might exert meaningful influence, or how the area we are working on will be affected by other dynamic parts of the system. Environmental scanning is a design research method that helps us achieve this by providing a loose framework to consider a wide range of attributes of a system, including social, political, ethical and organisational context. (CFC Medialab)

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Selective organic waste management

Organic waste is a pressing issue from two key perspectives. First, we have a physical waste problem, with many populations facing issues of a growing landfill footprint (Nakamura, S. & Kondo, Y. 2002) as both population and consumption increase. Second, there is a pollution problem – for organic waste, this is primarily an issue of greenhouse gas emissions, namely methane, being released as organic matter decomposes – even when technical solutions are deployed to prevent or minimise this byproduct (Chanton, J. et al 2011).

One of the landfill sites in my local council area, Blaxland Waste Management Facility, has been a concern for residents in terms of filling beyond capacity and management of odour pollution (Madigan, D. 2012). Although extensions in the past few years are projected to allow continued use of the landfill site for 15-20 years, Blue Mountains City Council has identified that a reduction in waste generated for landfill should occur in order for it to last significantly longer (Blue Mountains City Council 2015).

New South Wales

In NSW more generally, local government is responsible for collection and management of waste. According to the NSW Environmental Protection Authority’s most recently available survey of waste management, most councils collect garden organics separately (NSW EPA 2014) with all other forms of organic waste diverted to landfill if it is not dealt with through individual solutions such as composting, worm farms or animal feed. Only 17 councils in NSW collect food organic waste as well as garden waste. This is one of the aspects I want to address particularly, as in my proposal for my local government area, I believe there has been a missed opportunity recently transitioning to a system of collecting only garden-based organic waste.

Kerbside organics collection services in NSW, by 2016 (NSW EPA, 2016)
Kerbside organics collection services in NSW, by 2016 (NSW EPA, 2016)

Participatory waste management

My local council, Blue Mountains City Council, is just starting to collect green waste separately this month. This is a useful case-study, since as a new system it is currently well-documented and publicly defined, though it obviously lacks data on on system performance.

The green waste system being implemented by Blue Mountains City Council follows a basically status quo approach to municipal organic waste management in NSW and I believe there is value in exploring an alternative that seeks to address some of the system’s shortcomings and incorporate a broader range of concerns.

The fundamentals of an alternative municipal organic waste management system for Blue Mountains City Council I would propose are:

  • Collecting organic food waste in addition to green waste
  • Diverting garden-generated green waste to energy production
  • Redeveloping the visual identity and signage for the whole system
  • Fostering models of community ownership for both waste management and energy facilities

Food waste

The decision to only collect garden waste as part of the new Blue Mountains waste management system seems like a lost opportunity. There is a capacity issue with at least one of the Blue Mountains landfill sites and organic food waste can be converted at a range of scales to a potentially valuable agricultural input. Given the amount of agriculture servicing Sydney that exists within the Blue Mountains and in much greater concentration in Western Sydney market gardens and larger farms in the Central West, it makes sense to collect and process kitchen waste from Blue Mountains residents and businesses and process it for potential sale, helping to re-coup some of the costs of the waste management system. It should be noted, however, that there is an environmental benefit to processing waste as close as possible to the source of its production. In any scenario where organic food waste is collected, I would propose maintaining and expanding council education programs designed to promote individual backyard composting.

Energy production

Productively diverting green waste away from landfill is obviously a great environmental outcome and an improvement in service delivery to Blue Mountains residents. However, as a society we also face significant challenges in addressing climate change – specifically, transitioning from centralised fossil fuel-based energy generation to near-, net- or absolute-zero emissions forms of energy. This effort, considering holistically, carries a range of concerns, including a just transition for workers in fossil fuel infrastructure but also the possibility to re-imagine an energy system that meets other desirable criteria, such as being more flexible or participatory. Some of the state’s large coal-power stations exist just outside the Blue Mountains municipal area, offering the opportunity to develop new clean energy infrastructure at an appropriate point in the electricity grid where there is a significant workforce that could benefit from an alternative industry. Using a technology such as anaerobic digestion (Sanscartier D. et al 2012) or slow pyrolysis (Pacific Pyrolysis 2013), I propose that new plant is built, leveraging investment from local residents using community ownership models, that uses municipal tree and plant waste as an input for biomass electricity production.

Slow Pyrolysis technical diagram (Pacific Pyrolysis 2013)
Slow Pyrolysis technical diagram (Pacific Pyrolysis 2013)

Communication design

While there is not the space here to construct a full design proposal in detail, the current visual communication design of the new Blue Mountains Waste Management services needs a complete re-evaluation. Even for the use-case of the current system, I believe there is an argument for a much clearer visual language that directs people to separate their waste correctly. In the alternative system that I am outlining, a full redesign would be required to aid in the more complex waste separation and reflect the other elements of the system. If innovative approaches are going to be taken that call for participation and investment from the community, while offering dividends environmentally and socially, these should be reflected in the visual language of the system itself.

  • Sanscartier, D., MacLean, H. & Saville, B. 2012, ‘Electricity Production from Anaerobic Digestion of Household Organic Waste in Ontario: Techno-Economic and GHG Emission Analyses’, Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 46, no. 2, pp1233-1242.
  • Pacific Pyrolysis 2013, ‘Slow Pyrolysis’, Somersby, viewed 14 June 2016, <http://pacificpyrolysis.com/technology.html&gt;.

From coffee to mushrooms

In order to better understand waste generation and patterns, as well as reflect on my personal daily contribution to material waste, I conducted a waste audit for one day in June. I chose a day when I was working from home since that represents a little more than half my regular weekly schedule and data collection was simpler than other days. After collecting the data, I wrote some reflections below and then chose to focus particularly on the coffee I consumed – generating coffee grounds as organic waste – for a brief look at the product’s life cycle.

Material waste produced

  • Breakfast cereal scraps – drain
  • Banana peel – compost
  • Coffee grounds – compost
  • Envelope – paper recycling
  • Blunt razor blade – landfill
  • Excess dishwashing powder – drain
  • Bread crumbs – compost
  • Garlic clove – compost
  • Orange peel – compost
  • Banana peel – compost
  • Lime peel – compost
  • Pencil shavings – landfill
  • Tea bag – compost
  • Broken hot water bottle – landfill
  • Take-away container – plastic recycling
  • Chocolate wrapper – landfill

Reflection

Although this wasn’t a day in which I generated a comparatively large amount of waste, I was surprised as I tracked it throughout the day that there were more material things I was disposing of than I expected. As I analyse the raw data I collected, I also realise that there is a range of other waste that I generated throughout the day – for example, the wastewater from the shower I had, energy from stereo on standby, carbon emissions from the electricity I used – that I did not think to record as it happened. My key learning from this first exercise in data collection is that people generate more waste than they might realise. This begins to frame part of the design challenge in dealing with waste systems – awareness by the individual of the waste they generate in all its forms and where it goes when it is disposed of.

The life cycle of coffee

This is necessarily a brief look at the life cycle of the espresso coffee I drank, given that technical life cycle assessments (LCAs) are complex undertakings defined by international standards such as ISO 14040 (International Organization for Standardization 2010).

In the context of waste at household level or at an institution like UTS, we are most interested in what happens from the point of disposal of material waste in the making of the cup of coffee and any waste generated through its consumption, such as a disposable cup. However, it is worth reflecting for a moment that a vast amount of waste is generated, even proportionally to the tiny amount of ground coffee beans that are used to make a single cup, throughout the processes that the coffee has gone through, from discarded beans at the farm to carbon emissions in transportation to offcuts and by-products of packaging (Viere, T. 2011).

Clean Slate café in Katoomba, where they put coffee grounds out for people to use on their gardens. Photo: Erland Howden
Clean Slate café in Katoomba, where they put coffee grounds out for people to use on their gardens. Photo: Erland Howden

Returning to the key organic waste from the consumption of the coffee, the ground coffee beans are an interesting waste product to discuss, since 50% of Australians drink coffee and average 4 espresso coffees per week, averaging out to over 2.5kg of coffee beans over the whole population per annum (Ryan, S. 2012). More interesting still because there are a range of valuable uses for used coffee grounds, chiefly as an agricultural supplement. One example is by another interdisciplinary team of researchers at Kansas State University, who used waste coffee grounds generated on-campus to grow mushrooms (States News Service 2014).