Designing out waste and contamination

When we hear “waste reduction,” we tend to think about reducing our contributions to the landfill or incinerator, but waste reduction is a more complex and far-reaching story. The collection, transportation, and disposal of waste have tremendous economic and environmental impacts on our communities. Waste is also a public-health issue and a quality-of-life issue.

At the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS), we are working with our campus operational partners, MIT community, material scientists, behavioral researchers and waste hauler to design and test strategies that reduce the generation of trash and increase the amount of clean material (i.e. paper goods, plastics, and food waste) that can be recycled and re-processed.    Diverting waste from landfills and incineration can  reduce air, water, and soil pollution, decrease emissions, recover and repurpose valuable materials, and compost and redirect surplus food. 


Here are just a few of the waste reduction strategies we’re exploring:

  • reduce or eliminate campus waste at or near the source of generation

  • promote use of re-usable goods in place of single-use items

  • grow a visible and accessible online marketplace for re-use of surplus materials

  • develop guidelines for purchasing materials that are made from renewable resources

  • evaluate and factor in the lifecycle of materials during the purchasing process

  • increase the diversion rate of campus waste through reuse, recycling, and processing of organic materials

  • test different strategies for communicating, collecting, handling and hauling waste materials

MITOS Focus Areas

MITOS is currently working collaboratively to design out waste and contamination of recyclable materials via operations, education, research and innovation in the following areas.

Electronic Waste
Material Flow Analysis

Through a partnership with the Environmental Solutions Initiative and the Vice President for Finance (VPF) this collaborative analysis asks the question: How can MIT optimize material flows and reduce its negative impacts through innovations in purchasing, consumption and disposal processes? 

Material Matters
MIT Material Matters Dashboard

MITOS has partnered with the Office of Recycling and Materials Management to develop an open-source tracking and reporting tool called Materials Matters that reports the volume of 20 different recycling and solid waste outputs collected and transported from MIT on a monthly and yearly basis since 2011.  This visualization and analytics dashboard is being used to inform daily operational decision-making, research about the impacts of MIT material outputs and long-term systems planning.

group of people sort trash from blue bins
MIT Waste Contamination Studies

In recent years, the Office of Sustainability, in partnership with the Department of Facilities and other Institute departments, labs, and centers, has worked to pilot a number of studies focused on waste disposal practices and specifically waste stream contamination. MIT is committed to designing waste out so that materials at the end of their lifecycle can feed a circular economy of re-se that regenerates rather than depletes natural systems.

Name tags
Sustainable Event Certification

This Certification helps guide planners toward making smart choices about food, energy, transportation, and materials when planning an event at MIT.

Sustainability Connect
Recommendations from the MIT Sustainability Working Group

In November 2015, the MIT Office of Sustainability released the first set of recommendations, generated by the 2014-2015 Sustainability Working Groups, which address the following topics: building design and construction; stormwater and land management; materials management; and green labs.

Scope 3 GHG Emissions

MITOS is gathering a preliminary picture of MIT’s Scope 3, or indirect, GHG emissions in order to inform MIT’s total greenhouse gas emissions activities (Scopes 1 + 2 + 3) and explore where strategic opportunities may exist to reduce emissions.

Additional MIT Initiatives

MITOS is part of a community of departments, labs, and centers working toward elements of a sustainable campus. Featured below are initiatives from some of our partners.

Clothing Swap
Choose to Reuse

Free gently used goods exchange held on the third Thursday of the month in the Stata Center lobby.

Waste Bins
D-Lab Waste

This introductory course focuses on understanding some of the multiple dimensions of the global waste system.

Waste Audit
Responsible Waste Disposal Practices at MIT

Online course developed by the MIT GSC Sustainability Committee to help answer questions about what goes where in the waste streams at MIT.


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Key Waste Reduction Partners

Works with administrative and student groups to increase the amount of recycled goods and the types of materials that can be recycled.

Works to develop and practice the most efficient methods of buying products and services for the MIT community.

Works with undergrads, faculty and administration to introduce and improve sustainable programs on campus.

Cultivates sustainable behaviors and systems in the graduate community and throughout MIT.

Channels MIT’s unique culture to create solutions to environmental challenges through activities in education, research, and convening.

Fosters a forum where students, industrial practitioners, and policy makers can discuss waste-sector issues and innovations.