“Waste is a Decision”

Photo of a flock of birds flying over a landfill.

Mountains of trash collected in the Vancouver Landfill. (Photo courtesy of Justin Richie on Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Suppose you had to carry around all the waste you created for an entire week? Cans, packaging, plastic bags, papers of all kinds, plastic forks, food, and who knows what else. And then you had to decide where all these items would go. How many would be recyclable? What about the rest?

The course EC.716 D-Lab: Waste, just recently published on OCW, begins with this exercise—students carrying their waste around so they can appreciate just how much waste they are responsible for.

The course takes off from there. Offered through MIT’s D-Lab program, which focuses on “development through discovery, design, and dissemination,” EC.716 is administered under MIT’s Edgerton Center. OCW has published 10 D-Lab courses over the years. EC.716 was taught by Kate Mytty and Pedro Reynolds-Cuellar in Fall 2015. The OCW site has readings, lecture notes, assignments, and project descriptions.

Tangible Experiences

On the This Course at MIT page, Mytty shares her insights into teaching about waste. She likes to focus on “tangible experiences”—hands-on exercises like making a spot welder from parts of a broken microwave oven. In doing this, her students could see that they “were both deconstructing something but also constructing very different objects in response to it. They were also struck by the fact that, even after reusing parts of the microwave, they were still left with over 90% of the electronic device that wouldn’t be used in any other capacity and would likely end up in a landfill.”

And what about those landfills? They are out there, usually out of sight and out of mind. A fieldtrip to Massachusetts Southbridge Landfill helped encourage the students “to develop a more systematic approach” to waste. For instance, what technologies are used in a landfill these days? They have liners. What are the liners made of? They all smell. How is the smell managed?

A Doorway into Conversations

The point of all of this hands-on learning is really to open “a doorway into conversations about how students might change their own waste habits.” Changing a habit requires changing awareness, and in this regard EC.716 seems to have succeeded. One student told Mytty that “the class helped her become more aware of the ways in which waste is a decision.” It’s a good lesson for all of us.

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