In this section, Kate Mytty describes how she grounded EC.716 D-Lab: Waste in tangible experiences that helped students think critically about their role in waste infrastructure systems.
Identifying the Waste We Create
Waste is very tangible and an important part of this course was exploring the realities of waste through hands-on exercises and field trips. We began the course by exploring students’ personal awareness about the waste they create. Students spent the first week collecting their waste and carrying it around with them. At the end of the week, they brought their waste to class and we sorted it. We determined where items would go once they entered our waste system, and which items were recyclable—or if not labeled as such, their potential alternative uses.
In our second exercise, we engaged students in an activity in which they selected three items from their backpacks, such as laptops, phones, calculators, etc., and identified where the materials in those items were sourced and where they would be disposed of once they left the students’ hands. They also attempted to determine what percentage of each item could be reused in some shape or form. This was meant to show students how the items in their bag related to global material flows.
A Hands-on Lab Experience
One of the lab experiences in EC.716 D-Lab: Waste challenged students to create a spot welder from materials stripped from a microwave that no longer functioned. This lab gave students hands-on experience thinking about electronic waste (also known as “e-waste”), which is one of the largest issues facing the international community. E-waste is produced every time a company announces the launch of a new product and people dispose of their old products. We’re faced with the question of what to do with all of this e-waste. How can we reuse it instead of putting it in a landfill? Some international communities have developed informal sectors to manage e-waste. People in these sectors strip the discarded products for every valuable part they contain. They then sell these parts up the materials flow chain. Creating a spot welder from microwave parts gives students a sense of how this process works.
It was awesome to see students come to understand an electronic device they know so well in a completely new way. For instance, when they tried to strip copper from the microwave, they learned they first had to first strip away the metal tubing and glue encasing it. The tangible act of taking apart the microwave helped them gain a new sense of the complexity within the device.
Students spent three hours on this lab and were very excited by the fact that it was possible to take a microwave that didn't work anymore and turn it into a spot welder that allowed them to weld together other pieces of metal that they brought to the lab. In other words, 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 an any other capacity and would likely end up in a landfill.
Field Trip to a Landfill
Most people, at least in the United States, have limited direct exposure to our waste infrastructure. Our understanding begins and ends with our own trash bins. We might bike or drive behind a trash pickup vehicle, but for the most part, we don’t know what paths our leftover materials (such as our microwaves) follow after we dispose of them. In other words, we tend not to understand waste from a systemic perspective. Our field trip to the Massachusetts Southbridge Landfill was one way we tried to encourage students in EC.716 D-Lab: Waste to develop a more systemic perspective.
The field trip also helped students understand, in a visceral way, the technologies involved in our waste infrastructure system. In particular, students learned about bio gas production at Southbridge Landfill. They also gained exposure to how how the technology behind landfill linings has changed over the years. At Southbridge, students saw a crosscut of these linings and learned about the different materials used to construct them.
Additionally, staff members talked with students about how they use technology to protect local wildlife and to keep the landfill smell from infiltrating nearby areas. Overall, students were blown away by the different types of technologies needed to control waste and gained a sense of the technical speciality involved in proactive landfill management.
We invested a lot time in tangible experiences like the ones described above because we hoped to use the course as a doorway into conversations about how students might change their own waste habits. At the end of the Fall 2015 offering of EC.716 D-Lab: Waste, a student told me that the class helped her become more aware of the ways in which waste is a decision. Other students had a conversation about how they made a waiter at a restaurant uncomfortable by refusing a plastic drinking straw. We discussed how we have constant negotiations with others about who gives us waste and what we accept. These kinds of comments and conversations tell me the tangible experiences we offer students are helping them to think critically about their role in our waste infrastructure system.