Designing for Waste Reduction

The saying goes that the kitchen is the heart of the home, but what about kitchens in the office? Is the office kitchen an afterthought because it’s not “the money-making room”? How do building designers, owners, and executives really view these spaces? Have you ever thought about the sheer volume of stuff that goes through office kitchens?

Briefly put, we need to bring our mentality of the home kitchen into the office. Easily accessible, adequately sized  office kitchens (plural) with extensive storage will not only yield significant cost savings but also exponentially encourage the wide use of sustainable waste reduction and recycling practices. Here’s how:

  • Location, Storage & Size.  Multiple, centrally located kitchens make recycling and composting convenient, therefore easier for everyone in the office to participate in. If recycling is inaccessible and unfriendly—say, your office’s only recycling/composting bins are located in the kitchen downstairs or in the opposite corner of the building from you, or they are in a hard to access spot—you’re much less likely to make the effort to recycle and compost. Instead, you’ll throw everything out into the trash can at your desk, bring in a mini fridge and coffeepot, utilizing that extra desk space. As a result, you now work in your very own cubicle kitchen; your coworkers are envious and follow your lead. Just think how much extra energy use and unnecessary waste to landfill this leads to!
  • Waste, Recycling & Signage. It’s important that we clearly communicate what can and can’t go where (and why!) throughout our offices. Imagine every bin in your building has a different sign. Though you have good intentions, you’re not entirely sure what can and can’t go where; you’re in a rush and the waste bin is right here, so, forget it… you just throw everything away. Recycling and composting attempts slow you down and you are understandably frustrated by “this whole waste diversion concept.” It’s easy to get confused when recycling and composting bins are hidden or the signage is unclear.
  • Real Dishes. Office kitchens should be designed with enough storage space for everyone in the office to have a ‘place setting.’ An indescribable amount of waste would be eliminated if we all started using real dishes— just think about all those plastic forks and take out containers you use for your lunch. Every time we eat at a restaurant, we’re sharing that plate and silverware with all the other patrons before and after us. The same principal applies at the office: the dishes are there, they are used, and then they are cleaned and used again. Plus, there is a lot of dignity to dishware; eating off real plates and drinking out of a glass is nice.
  • Dishwashers. A crucial element to the success of implementing dishware are automated dishwashers. In my prior role where I worked with many offices to implement reusable dishes, a frequently cited reason for not using real dishes is the clean up involved. Hand washing uses a lot of time and water, and we all have our own judgments on what a “clean” hand washed plate looks like. Dishwashers eliminate this. Every office kitchen should have a working dishwasher that cleans dishes well so that employees don’t feel the need to hand wash them first (which wastes water). Sometimes, this only requires one meeting with open minds to work out a system that will suit the office best in terms of “dishwasher duty”.

So here is my call to action:

As architects, we have the power to encourage or dissuade certain actions by the way we arrange our spaces. Why not make waste reduction practices easy for occupants? Why is this seen as something to hide? Why not celebrate it?

As building owners, we have the power to make designing for waste happen by prioritizing it for our design teams. If pursuing LEED, incorporating waste and recycling collection space is already required, why not take this to the next level? 

As graphic designers, we have the power to make recycling and composting even more successful through cohesive, attractive signage. Some of the most successful signage caters specifically to the type of waste in the vicinity. For example: if making a poster for a lunch stop restaurant, only include the types of waste provided by that restaurant on the signs (Napkins, plates, cups, food, etc).

All in all, the office kitchen of today doesn’t need to be a top-of-the-line masterpiece with deluxe finishes and scenic views, but it does need to be more than a poorly located, converted closet with a broken dishwasher. Our office kitchens should embody more principles of Modernism by being functional in terms of the office employee of today and tomorrow.  They need to be well sized with streamlined waste management system. The benefits of doing this will reach far beyond the individual office.

This blog was originally written in October 2013 for BLiNK: Perspectives on Design. It has been edited and reposted for This Vast Now.


Published by Alex Setmajer

Sustainability professional driven to help the world continually become a more sustainable place.

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