D-Lab: Waste

D-Lab: Waste - An Introduction to the Fall 2016 Course

Waste sorting at SWaCH, India’s first wholly-owned cooperative of self-employed waste pickers/waste collectors and other urban poor. 

D-Lab: Waste Co-Instructor, Kate Mytty.


D-Lab: Waste Co-Instructor Jennifer Hiser.









All of us, even the most careful consumers and conscientious recyclers among us, are waste generators. It is increasingly clear that places near and far can be affected by our waste and its management (or mismanagement). 

This D-Lab: Waste class comes at a time when we, as a society, are learning more about our waste disposal chain and where our waste ultimately ends up — sometimes obscure places where no humans reside. Urban populations are increasing in many areas around the world, giving rise to an increase in the waste generated in urban areas, and making urban waste management a growing challenge for many city residents and governments. This is especially challenging in cities that are running out of space to store waste either because of environmental or human constraints.

For instance, during the D-Lab: Waste class tour to the Casella Southbridge Landfill in Massachusetts last year, we learned that given current policies, Massachusetts has a maximum of 12 years of landfill space remaining if all landfill extensions are approved. Meanwhile, around the world from MIT in Pune, India, residents near the landfill that holds the waste from that city have been protesting for its closure for years, while efforts to identify a new landfill have been repeatedly delayed much to the frustration of the residents. While these are two different cities, what we learn when diving into analysis of the global waste system, is how connected the world material market is and how that influences waste management in many areas of the world. 

While there are formidable challenges in waste management, it is also exciting to see numerous innovators developing ways to decrease waste through the development of new materials, cradle to cradle waste systems, household recycling through bicycle collection, and inclusive waste management systems, which affect a large number of people who earn their income through recycling. These are the types of topics we explore in the D-Lab: Waste course.  

Through a series of exercises, guest speakers, lectures, field trips, and collaborative waste projects, this course explores the complexities and opportunities in waste management and our personal relationship with waste. D-Lab: Waste provides a space for students to learn about material flows, actors, waste processes and policy — while also giving students a chance to apply their education to something practical through work with a community partner. 

This is the fifth year D-Lab: Waste has been offered and each year students share and explore their unique interests on waste over the course of the semester. Students will have the opportunity to collaborate with a community partner or to identify their own project. Last year, students in the class researched and developed projects including: 

  • A visually engaging educational toolkit to show kids how composting works.
  • Market research for the development of a line of condensed consumer products (shampoos, conditioners, body wash, etc.) in the United States to save on water weight.
  • A sensor for managing lab waste at MIT in more real time.

This year, we’re looking forward to having students collaborate with on semester-long projects including:

  • Improved waste management in Versalles, Colombia (with IDDS Zero Waste, Colombia organizer)
  • Pilot of the supply and demand of materials in Brazil and Nicaragua (with the the MIT Practical Impact Alliance working group on Food Loss and Waste)
  • Tracing electronic waste streams in Nairobi to develop an e-waste supply chain (African-Born 3D printing

If you’re interested in waste, join us for the class or follow along as we blog about the classwork!

Email Co-Instructor Kate Mytty.

D-Lab: Waste students join waste management research project in India

By Kate Mytty, Candidate for Master in Urban Planning at MIT, Tata fellow. 

Kate Mytty, second from right

Dump truck!

Waste collection



Over the past two weeks over seventy people from MIT and the Shri Ram Group of Colleges have been researching the waste management system in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. This group was made of MIT Tata Fellows, four students from the D-Lab: Waste class, and students and faculty from multiple schools at Shri Ram Group. While waste can encompass many aspects of waste, our focus was on understanding municipal solid waste – the waste produced by households and businesses.

We broke into five groups which covered: 

  • Household Waste Analysis and Interviews - which analyzed the waste generated by households and interviewed over 200 households throughout the greater Muzaffarnagar area to gain the household perspective about waste disposal 
  • Contribution of the Informal Sector – to document and quantify the contributions of Kabadiwalas (who buy recyclables) and ragpickers (who collect recyclables from dumpsites throughout the city)
  • Bulk Generators of Waste – to understand how bulk generators of waste, like banquet halls, restaurants, and colleges, dispose of their waste. 
  • Compost Processing and Market – interviewed farmers and documented the current compost process to gauge the market potential for compost and opportunities to improve the current composting process.
  • System Analysis and Overview – this group looked at all the actors in the system and helped to design a pilot program to be implemented over the next year. 

My team focused on the household waste analysis to develop an estimate of the amount of waste generated per person and the types of waste generated by households. One of the key challenges in any municipal waste system is that often no one really knows how much waste is generated at the city level, nor how much each waste is produced by each category of waste producer (households, bulk generators, and small businesses). Most of us have little idea of how much waste we produce on a daily basis (including me!).

Efforts to estimate the per capita generation of waste, such as in this paper, are derived by estimating the total amount of waste collected in the city divided by the total city population. In Muzaffarnagar, where not all waste is collected, this method does very little to help clarify how much waste is produced. 

At present, roughly 120 metric tons of waste is collected through the municipal system daily. The municipal system includes the privately contracted door-to-door collectors, municipal street sweepers and anyone else that disposes of their waste in the 45 secondary collection sites throughout the city. 

To determine the total amount of waste generated by households, we collected waste from 15 – 30 households in three different areas of the city. We did this several times to be able to adequately balance out any off amounts of waste collected. We also collected the total number of family members in each household. 

While collecting, I started to understand the waste system. The waste collectors would use a tricycle cart to collect from households. Each waste collector collected waste from around 200 households daily. They’d whistle to notify households to dispose of their waste. Some households would drop their waste from the roof, others from buckets tied to rope and lowered down four floors to the cart, and others by handing the waste collector a bucket. 

After collecting and segregating the waste, we found that on average, at the household level, a single person in Muzaffarnagar makes 0.315 kilograms of waste on a day (this excludes, the amount of waste recycled through the door-to-door household recycling efforts). This means in a single day within the city limits with a population of more than 392,451 people, households alone produce more than 123.5 metric tons of waste each day. Given that 120 metrics tons of waste is collected every day, there is a minimum of 3.5 tons of waste not being collected on a daily basis. Of course, households are not the only waste generators in the city; thus, the 123.5 metric tons represent only a portion of the city’s daily waste. 

Beyond understanding the amount of waste generated, the next question is what type of waste is generated. By knowing both of these variables, we can start to tweak the existing waste system to meet the demands of each stakeholder. Through segregating the waste, we found that roughly 60% of household waste is organic; this means that ~73.5 tons of waste produced daily is organic waste. Not all of this organic makes it to the municipal waste processing site as some of it is consumed by animals – the pigs, cows and dogs – at the secondary waste sites. One opportunity that part of our team is exploring further is the market size of compost. Muzaffarnagar is in a largely agricultural area of Uttar Pradesh; this could be a natural fit for reusing the valuable compostable material made by various waste generators throughout the city. 

While is it is easy to speak about waste and the calculations to derive the mass amount of waste created, household waste is generated by humans. As you can imagine, everyone was surprised by the total amount of waste created. When we speak about this in a tangible sense, 123.5 metrics tons of waste is equal to more than 25 Indian elephants in weight. When you think about 25 Indian elephant-sized heaps of waste wandering around a city, it’s easier to imagine the capacity needed to manage this waste. 

Our next step is to develop a pilot model that would aim to (a) collect more total waste, (b) encourage households to segregate waste at the household level, and (c) explore whether segregated waste contributes to a higher quality compost. By testing these questions at a small scale, we’d start to explore how to what types of changes are needed to encourage behavior change at the household level. Ideally, households and their workers would be disposing of their waste through approved disposal sites and methods.

We’d also start to see whether households are willing to segregate their waste without any incentive beyond merely providing the infrastructure necessary to collect segregated waste. This would be useful in determining whether it’s possible to get a regular supply of organic waste. Finally, we’d test how a clean supply of organic waste influences the market. Do farmers actually want to use compost? If not, are there other venues for organic waste? 

Look for more posts from D-Lab: Waste students on this blog soon!

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