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Designing for Circular Economy Practices at the Market

Post by Tom Straus, Plant Chicago Intern 

During the Summer of 2017 I began an internship with Plant Chicago. One of my responsibilities was working with the farmers market  to implement a more effective composting and recycling program for our market guests and vendors, to include a new “Zero Waste Station” for use during the market and other onsite events.

Before this new zero waste station is built, it is important to collect baseline data to see how people are currently interacting with the recycling, landfill, and compost bins. We also wanted to find out what the current rate of success is for placing items in the appropriate bin so that we can measure the effects of the new zero waste station on materials diversion at the market. This process required that I and my fellow interns dig through the waste bins after each market to document the contents. This was a dirty process, but the data we collected gave us some great insights.

From the analysis of the contents we were able to highlight multiple issues and problem items that our waste station will need to address. The most apparent issue was the contaminant percentages on the landfill bin. Each week approximately 60% of the bin contained items that could have been diverted into either the recycling or compost bins. From this data we’re able to conclude that when faced with confusion regarding where to place items people tended to opt for placing items in the landfill container, rather than place an item in the bin they were unsure of.

Graphs for Waste Audits

Our most common problem items included plastic straws and cups, wax coated cups, and the corn husks used to wrap tamales.  This data has influenced further conversation regarding how best to correct these errors. In response to this we added a separate section to our waste station design for liquid and straw disposal and the development of signage to highlight the appropriate bin for items. For the wax cups we have begun discussion regarding the group purchasing of compostable alternatives for use at the market to avoid sending these cups to a landfill.

During our data observation and collection, I also researched various programs and began speaking with my Plant Chicago colleagues about a design for the new zero waste station. Based on our data the new waste station will be a “guided disposal”, designed similarly to a cafeteria line, but in reverse. 

The new zero waste station will allow vendors and guests a convenient and helpful way to properly sort their waste products in  accordance with the Circular Economy vision of Plant Chicago and our home, The Plant.


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