“Flows and Footprints” is a series of visualizations and interactive tools that track how food and packaging move through Notre Dame’s campus. Seeing these materials flow, from farm to table to landfill, lends scope to an ephemeral and oft-invisible process. Facing their accumulations and environmental impacts brings an immediacy to reducing waste and curbing consumption. Organized on top of key phases in our supply chains, materials are tracked in flows proportional to their weights. 2019-2020 waste tonnage is combined with databases from the USDA, EPA, and global agricultural surveys to create a theoretical framework that may be updated easily with local data.
To gain an understanding of our waste streams, I wanted to examine a “System at Work”. I interviewed 12 officers across 6 Departments and two packaging designers. I worked in a dining hall stockroom, helping unload trucks at 6 AM on a Monday morning. I toured the services center through which all recycling passes, before making the trip to an Elkhart sorting facility. I mapped the campus boundary and supply chains in a system diagram. Starting with real waste data, I calculated the flow of materials in spreadsheets. To assign proportions to each link in the chain, I used EPA landfill characterizations and diet surveys of adults from the USDA. The raw data was then codified, fed through an open-source Sankey engine, and detailed in Illustrator. The end result shows the weight, in tons, of food and packaging that flows through campus and the environmental impacts of their production and distribution.
The Office of Sustainability was thrilled with the result, requesting the framework be installed in their conference room. We discussed using Tableau to feed the theoretical framework real data from procurement and retail departments on campus as it came online, as a sort of interactive dashboard that could be hosted on the Office’s webpage. They believed that type of assignment was a great fit for their undergraduate interns, as it was structured and discreet, yet a piece of a larger whole. What “Flows and Footprints” was most successful at was situating a merchant or consumer within the framework - making clear that we all played a role in an interconnected system much larger than ourselves.