Rachana Shah explores system stability and points of intervention in a specific, highly complex system: the New York City Waste system. Shah uses systems theory to analyze specific actors and their actions to reveal key leverage points for change within the system. She prioritizes the leverage points by their potential for impact on the system, elucidating exactly what each leverage point can change, who will be affected by the change, and what effect the change could have on the system. She then explores the negative feedback processes that resist systems change, pointing out that the higher in impact a leverage point is, the more a system will resist it.
Waste — the sight of it and particularly the smell of it — almost universally evokes disgust. Not all waste, however, is offensive to the senses. Some waste may be imperceptible to our immediate discernment, and the effects of this kind of waste may be more insidiously damaging to our well-being than any rotting rubbish. It recently came to light that waste is literally coursing through our veins. Researchers at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found “extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste” in the bloodstream of 17 out of 22 study participants.1
The study was limited in scope and should be followed by a study with a larger sample size, but the results are not surprising given that microplastics have been detected in human placentas on both the maternal and fetal side,2 in the most remote and seemingly pristine environments,3 in the depths of the ocean,4 and on the highest mountain peaks.5
Society takes a brief pause of despair or outrage upon hearing this story, but the next news cycle arrives, and we carry on. One might think humans would rather deal with waste (microplastics in this case) individually, in this most intimate of ways (running through their bloodstream), than deal with it systemically.
Of course, this is not true. Most people would not choose that, especially if asked in those clear terms. Rather, they become so overwhelmed by this information that they’re unable to think about dealing with it on a systemic level. They may move on, not out of choice, but out of the need to preserve their mental well-being in a world awash in systemic problems.
The awareness that we need “system change, not climate change” is growing, with this slogan commonly found on signs at climate-related protests. But how do we do that? The slogan does not include a roadmap.
Thinking in Systems
We can turn to the experts tasked with creating frameworks for giant, global problems like ending worldwide hunger or keeping climate change within manageable boundaries. Donella Meadows wrote the book, actually many books, on “thinking in systems.” She writes:
The central concept is that system behaviors are not caused by exogenous events, but rather are intrinsic to the system itself. The connections and feedback loops within a system dictate the range of behaviors the system is capable of exhibiting. Therefore, it is more important to understand the internal structures of the system, than to focus on specific events that perturb it.6
If we understand a complex system in this way, it becomes relatively straightforward to identify which measures have little (or no) impact on long-term change and which have high impact — the type of changes that aren’t obvious within one or two political cycles but create the foundation for momentum and consistent change toward the goal.
Studying a system through the lens of complex system theory lets us broaden our arcs of optimism and strengthen our resolve to advocate for change. We need not get bogged down when low-impact actions are slow to be enacted, and we can champion (and even take part in) some high-impact endeavors.
The NYC Waste System
Let us unpack the internal structures of a system — New York City (NYC) Waste (Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Collection, Processing, and Disposal), a system I can speak to with knowledge and experience — to understand how we can bring forth change in one piece of one system (global waste) that is part of a broader system causing global climate change. To put NYC’s waste into perspective, we must understand the role it plays in contributing to the global climate:
Twenty percent of all methane emissions are from waste,7 largely due to anaerobic decay of organic waste in landfills. Methane is 84 times more potent than CO2 in warming the atmosphere.
Waste incineration (greenwashed as “low-carbon waste-to-energy” schemes) generates about twice as much CO2 as the equivalent of fossil fuels because it often contains hard-to-recycle plastic waste.8 Incineration releases pollutants like methane and nitrous dioxide (310 times more potent than CO2). Burning waste in open fires, a practice common in the developing world, produces additional pollutants, such as black carbon (5,000 times greater warming potential than CO2).9
Waste transportation accounts for significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The heaviest type of waste, and therefore the most financially and environmentally costly to transport, is typically organic waste.
Plastics are currently produced using fracking for natural gas, primarily consisting of methane. According to the World Economic Forum, “Over 90% of plastics produced are derived from virgin fossil feedstocks. This represents about 6% of global oil consumption, which is equivalent to the oil consumption of the global aviation sector. If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the plastics sector will account for 20% of total oil consumption by 2050.”10
When exposed to solar radiation, plastic waste in the ocean or on coastlines emits methane and ethylene.11
Other crises caused or exacerbated by global waste include:
An ecological crisis. An estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean every year.12
An environmental justice crisis. Chronically disenfranchised communities bear higher levels of pollution burdens due to global waste colonialism, including higher concentrations of particulate matter in the air, toxic releases during incineration, higher exposure to diesel fumes from waste transportation, drinking water contamination, and proximity and exposure to hazardous waste. Waste colonialism refers to “the assumed entitlement” by high GDP countries to use land in low GDP countries “as a sink, no matter where it is.”13
A human health crisis. As scientists begin studying the effects of microplastics in human blood (and, more recently, deeply embedded in the lungs of humans),14 other studies have already linked the endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics and other products to decreased human fertility rates and increased miscarriage rates.15
The consequences of not enacting system change with regard to global waste will be catastrophic, as the global plastic market size is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 3.4% from 2021 to 2028.16
NYC’s system of waste generation, pickup, processing, and disposal has many stakeholders (in complex systems terminology, these are called “agents”).17 Figure 1 lists many of the key agents acting together under specific parameters.
Agents act in a system to create conditions or a certain “state of the system,” also known as a “stock.” Inflows increase the stock, and outflows decrease it. Decision makers then evaluate the state of the system to determine what actions can be taken to reach the goal (see Figure 2). Figure 3 then shows how we use our perceived state of the system (e.g., mounds of black trash bags along many streets) to see the discrepancy from the goal. Increasing beneficial outflow 1 (any aspect of the circular economy) allows the reduction of harmful outflow 2 (landfill, etc.), which helps us reach the goal. Then we look for leverage points: places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything, and the title of the Donella Meadows article used to guide this analysis.18
Learning Where to Intervene in a System
In Meadows’s article, she describes sitting in a meeting about how new global trade regimes would (supposedly) make the world function better. She was getting upset at what she heard and eventually became so angry about the direction she believed the new regime would take the world that she interrupted the meeting by getting up, marching to the flip chart, turning to a blank sheet, and writing a list showing how, in complex systems, leverage points are not intuitive:
What bubbled up in me that day was distilled from decades of rigorous analysis of many different kinds of systems done by many smart people. But complex systems are, well, complex. It’s dangerous to generalize about them. What you are about to read is a work in progress. It’s not a recipe for finding leverage points. Rather, it’s an invitation to think more broadly about system change. Here … is a revised list [see Figure 4].19
Grouping the leverage points into broader buckets (low, medium, and high impact) gives us an uncomplicated categorization of solutions that tells us how much energy we should invest in supporting or opposing that solution. We examine actual and hypothetical solutions as we describe the leverage points below.
Low-Impact Leverage Points
“12. Constraints, Parameters, Numbers”
Meadows puts these last on her list. She equates adjusting parameters to “diddling with the details, adjusting faucets, or arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” even though they command 99% of our attention. That hyper-focus is logical when we realize that, for government officials with vast reign and access to power but a limited window to deliver results (or to be held accountable), number-changing is the perfect lever.
In the NYC Waste system, changing parameters include fines and tickets for littering, dumping, incorrectly setting out waste, not maintaining clean sidewalks, and improperly recycling; plastic bag fees/taxes; and increasing/decreasing assimilative capacity.20 The latter refers to the acceptable levels of toxins in waterways and other shared natural resources.
Most citizens and lawmakers spend all their time and energy on these activities, but systems thinkers use their time and energy on medium- and high-impact leverage points.
“11. The Sizes of Buffers and Other Stabilizing Stocks Relative to Their Flows”
Buffers are cushions, rainy-day funds. They help deal with periods of uncertainty. The more uncertainty there is, the bigger the buffer needed. Before the ubiquitousness of plastics, almost all consumer goods were distributed in containers made of paper, glass, or aluminum. Two of these materials, glass and aluminum, were truly recyclable: they could be recycled infinitely and fit into the idea of a circular economy. The other, paper, was able to be recycled a finite number of times and after that point was biodegradable.
In the 1960s and beyond, as plastics became more popular, the inflows into the material stock of our system increased significantly. By 1988, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions was created by the US Society of the Plastics Industry to help “sell” the idea of plastic recycling.21 In doing so, they created a buffer, a cushion to absorb some of the excess waste they created. “But if a buffer [becomes] too big,” Meadows warns in her article, “the system becomes inflexible.” This is why in 30 years, we haven’t been able to reform the plastics downcycling buffer.
Like the prior leverage point, this one involves significant time and capital, with uninspired results.
“10. The Structure of Material Stocks and Flows”
This leverage point refers to the physical structure of a system and how difficult it is to enact change once that structure has been built out. In the NYC Waste system, there is an abundance of colossal, capital-intensive physical infrastructure — from garbage trucks to massive transfer stations to waste bins and more.
In 2010, “digester eggs” were added to an existing wastewater treatment plant in Newtown Creek, Brooklyn. The five egg-shaped structures process 350 million gallons of sewage and food waste daily and turn the methane they emit into energy.22 This feat makes them appear to be a sustainable food-waste solution for NYC. However, considering it took 10 years and US $5 billion to build them, this solution remains in the low-impact category.
“9. The Length of Delays, Relative to the Rate of System Change”
In her article, Meadows describes delays in a familiar example: a shower with delayed temperature adjustment, causing “oscillations from hot to cold and back to hot, punctuated with expletives.” She reminds us that a system is not capable of responding to short-term changes when it has long-term delays.
Many consequences of the role of waste in global crises are similarly slow to reach the public. Methane emissions from waste are hard to measure (they are not done in real time; there is a delay). The health effects of microplastics are only now being uncovered, even as production hurtles forward, baselined on the growth of plastics from the past until today (when those health consequences were unknown). Educating a mass of people about the health dangers of something so woven into our lives will surely suffer delays due to our innate sense of defensiveness.
Finding ways to decrease the delays of educating the public on negative consequences on human health could be considered a more effective lever than fines and taxes.
Medium-Impact Leverage Points
“8. The Strength of Negative Feedback Loops, Relative to the Impacts They’re Trying to Correct Against”
“Negative feedback loops are ubiquitous in systems. Nature evolves them, and humans invent them as controls to keep important system states within safe bounds,” writes Meadows in her article. In NYC, citizen complaints allow city workers to respond where there are sanitation issues, so the system does not go out of bounds. Another negative feedback loop is the cost of sending waste to landfills, which rises as spaces get filled up, causing officials to search for places to accept this waste. Currently, waste picked up in the Bronx is sent to landfills in Virginia, and waste from Staten Island is sent to South Carolina. Since separating out organic waste is not yet required by law, these waste transport costs are high, and GHG emissions are considerable. At some point, the costs will be too high, and action must be taken.
Pushing for higher landfill and incineration rates appeals to corporate executives because they often use cost to justify decisions. But it means costs, rather than climate change consequences, keep the system within bounds.
“7. The Gain Around Driving Positive Feedback Loops”
Positive feedback loops are akin to vicious (or victorious) cycles. The more they work, the more powerful they become, and the more they work. In her article, Meadows writes, “Reducing the gain around a positive loop — slowing the growth — is usually a more powerful leverage point in systems than strengthening negative loops and much preferable to letting the positive loop run.” One abstract example is that more despair or fear over the future would lead to more consumption, which would lead to more waste, which would lead to more despair … and the cycle continues. If we were to slow consumption or work to mitigate despair/fear on a societal level, it would buy us more time to handle waste.
“6. The Structure of Information Flows”
An inexpensive and high-leverage action is to simply install an information-delivery loop. “Missing feedback is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure,” writes Meadows.
My company, Common Ground Compost, is building and launching a new digital waste management platform for businesses and real estate portfolios called WATS (Waste Administration Tracking Software). Many building and sustainability managers have easy access to energy and water usage through metering systems, but they have almost no transparency into their waste metrics, relying solely on data provided to them by their waste haulers. Haulers generally charge by weight, so they are not an unbiased source of information. WATS allows businesses to have compelling feedback, on demand, upon which to make decisions and react nimbly to changing market conditions.23
The investment needed is relatively low, and the knowledge gained is substantial. For that reason, systems thinkers strongly support information flows.
High-Impact Leverage Points
“5. The Rules of the System”
“If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and to who has power over them,” commands Meadows. Rules include incentives, punishments, and constraints. For example, NYC’s sustainability plan calls for establishing commercial waste zones. This would prevent private haulers from driving, for example, 128 miles in just one nightly route! Each zone would have haulers assigned to service it, keeping haulers inside geographic boundaries and significantly reducing GHG emissions from diesel trucks, among other benefits.
Another rule NYC could consider is a pay-as-you-throw program. Already functioning well in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, this rule would significantly reduce waste inflow. Because diversity of residence types adds complexity to enacting this rule, NYC officials have dragged their feet. However, densely populated cities like Seoul, South Korea, have solved this problem by offering different pay-as-you-throw programs for varying residential needs.
Thinking bigger, NYC could decide to outlaw sending waste for incineration. It could single-handedly ban all single-use plastics. The latter would require a city-wide regulation change but would push citizens toward reusables, dramatically reducing waste.
According to a UN member, in March 2022, 175 countries endorsed a landmark resolution to establish an international, legally binding treaty on the production, design, and disposal of plastic by 2024.24 Rules are only as powerful as the entities that enforce them, but we can be encouraged by the fact that so many countries agreed on swift change over a tight timeline. NYC will have a part to play in this for the US to remain in compliance.
“4. The Power to Add, Change, Evolve, or Self-Organize System Structure”
When a system self-organizes to create any structure low on Meadows’s list, it’s an indication we’re in the midst of a revolution. “The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself,” she writes.
This lever is one of the most exciting because it reflects a stubborn insistence to do the right thing. In response to the common sight of the perfectly usable furniture, toys, and strollers that New Yorkers see next to garbage on garbage pickup days, a multitude of social media groups have formed. So-called curb alerts are generated by other members of the community. They include an address, and a community member in the group may be called on to check if the item is still there, so it can be rescued. There are also “Buy Nothing” groups emerging, package-free small businesses, repair-and-reuse pop-ups, dumpster divers, protests, die-ins, and self-initiated green teams.
These revolutionary ideas offer hope, and these solutions let system thinkers go beyond advocacy into active participation.
“3. The Goals of the System”
When there is a goal, writes Meadows, “then everything further down the list, physical stocks and flows, feedback loops, information flows, even self-organizing behavior, will be twisted to conform to that goal.” The goal of the current NYC Waste system is to remove trash. Whether it’s for health, sanitation, or aesthetic reasons, New Yorkers just want it gone. There is a great deal of discussion about ways to strengthen the circular economy by increasing beneficial outflows (e.g., recycle more, create citywide composting infrastructure) but only brief consideration given to decreasing the inflows.
What if the goal was to live in the city with the least amount of waste generated per person in the country? What if the goal was zero-waste kaizen? What if the goal was to participate in the least harmful waste system, avoiding negative health outcomes for any living being? What if the goal was to decolonize?
“2. The Mindset or Paradigm Out of Which the System Arises”
Whole societies “resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist anything else,” writes Meadows. Reframing the way individuals view waste is key to creating a shift in mindset. When communicating various waste issues to audiences, there are a few ways I do this:
Talk through a scenario where the Department of Sanitation declared landfills closed, trash pickups suspended (except for paper, glass, aluminum, and organic waste), and citizens required to keep all the waste they generated in their homes or backyards. I ask, “What’s the first thing you would do?”
Encourage a thought experiment: Every time you say “throw away” replace “away” with “in someone else’s yard.” Imagine a party you hosted came to an end, and a helpful friend asks: “What should I do with all these leftovers?” Would you reply “Oh, just throw them in someone else’s yard”?
Challenge the audience’s perceptions of what is waste: micro-plastics can appear to be specks of sand, and even while we ingest a credit card–sized amount of plastic each week, we don’t taste or feel them. How can we reframe the sight of a single-use fork or a polyester t-shirt (knowing it will deteriorate into plastic particles) with the same level of disgust that we feel when we are around a dirty diaper or moldy bread?
Describe how, in the 1950s, when plastics were introduced to consumers, their main target audience (housewives) did not receive them well. “At first, homemakers were wary of a material they associated with bad smells, a weirdly oily texture and cheap construction.”25 Soon, Tupperware parties were created, where a salesgirl sold directly to housewives in their homes, where they could sit with friends, see the products, and discuss the benefits. The behavior of using plastics was learned, which means choosing reusable products over single-use plastics can also be learned. (Perhaps we can borrow the behavior change model, too!)
Changing mindsets is incredibly powerful. Ideas seep into our words and actions, then into behaviors and the behaviors of those around us. This snowballs into societal mindset shifts. This is happening currently, fueling the determination of many of us fighting the climate crisis.
“1. The Power to Transcend Paradigms”
Part of this lever is letting go. In other words, understanding there is no certainty in any worldview and allowing that to liberate your thinking. Part of the lever is seeing the world as having no inherent order, “like a kaleidoscope: the world is a matter of patterns that change, that partly repeat, but never quite repeat, that are always new and different.”26 Part of it is abandoning notions of duality, such as human versus nature. “We are part of nature ourselves. We’re in the middle of it. There’s no division between doers and done-to because we are all part of this interlocking network.”27
Achieving Lucidity in Complex Systems Analysis
The Meadows framework provides tools to analyze any complex system. Understanding the framework itself gives rise to shifts in mindset within ourselves, as we, too, are complex systems. For any system that requires system change, achieving clarity requires going through the exercise of identifying the agents, stock, inflows and outflows, and goals and discrepancies of the system, and then listing all current and possible solutions and determining whether they are low-, medium-, or high-impact leverage points.
This helps us rise above the noise of arguments over low-impact solutions. We can better cope with high levels of uncertainty and feel confident about where our energy is being spent. Although time is not on our side when combatting climate change, we can see awareness and activism gaining momentum, and we can pull out every weapon in our arsenal to ensure it continues.
As a changemaker within this system, the framework Meadows provided allows me to understand where my energy is best spent. Adjustments to parameters are worthwhile, but not if other levers are available. The high- and medium-impact leverage points show us that we don’t need a roadmap to system change, and we don’t have to drown in despair.
We need to observe the system, take part in efforts to self-organize, and look for moments of opportunity where a small shift might produce an outsized ripple effect. We connect with the notion that “complex, lifelike behavior [in a system] is the result of simple rules unfolding from the bottom up.”28 We contemplate the infinity of patterns within the kaleidoscope, the transformations that take place first within ourselves, then within our communities, until the kaleidoscope encompasses everything we know to be and continues shifting, adjusting, and evolving.
1Leslie, Heather A., et al. “Discovery and Quantification of Plastic Particle Pollution in Human Blood.” Environment International, 24 March 2022.
2Ragusa, Antonio, et al. “Plasticenta: First Evidence of Microplastics in Human Placenta.” Environment International, Vol. 146, No. 10,6274, January 2021.
3Allen, Steve, et al. “Atmospheric Transport and Deposition of Microplastics in a Remote Mountain Catchment.” Nature Geoscience, Vol. 12, April 2019.
4Chiba, Sanae, et al. “Human Footprint in the Abyss: 30 Year Records of Deep-Sea Plastic Debris.” Marine Policy, Vol. 96, October 2018.
5Napper, Imogen E., et al. “Reaching New Heights in Plastic Pollution — Preliminary Findings of Microplastics on Mount Everest.” One Earth, Vol. 3, No. 5, 20 November 2020.
6Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.
7“Methane Tracker 2020.” IEA, March 2020.
8“The Impact of Waste-to-Energy Incineration on Climate.” Zero Waste Europe, September 2019.
9Gunthe, Sachin S., et al. “Enhanced Aerosol Particle Growth Sustained by High Continental Chlorine Emission in India.” Nature Geoscience, Vol. 14, 25 January 2021.
10“The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics.” World Economic Forum, January 2016.
11Royer, Sarah-Jeanne, et al. “Production of Methane and Ethylene from Plastic in the Environment.” PLoS One, Vol. 13, No. 8, 1 August 2018.
12“Plastic Pollution: Tackling the Plastics Crisis at the Source.” Oceana, accessed April 2022.
13Liboiron, Max. “Waste Colonialism.” Discard Studies, 1 November 2018.
14Jenner, Lauren C., et al. “Detection of Microplastics in Human Lung Tissue Using μFTIR Spectroscopy.” Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 831, 20 July 2022.
15Swan, Shanna H., and Stacey Colino. Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race. Scribner, 2022.
16“Plastic Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report by Product (PE, PP, PU, PVC, PET, Polystyrene, ABS, PBT, PPO, Epoxy Polymers, LCP, PC, Polyamide), by Application, By End-Use, by Region, and Segment Forecasts, 2021-2028.” Grand View Research (GVR), April 2021.
17“OneNYC 2050: Building a Strong and Fair City.” The City of New York, April 2019.
18Meadows, Donella. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” The Donella Meadows Project/Academy for Systems Change, accessed April 2022.
19Meadows (see 18).
20Liboiron, Max. Pollution Is Colonialism. Duke University Press, 2021.
21Liesemer, Ronald. “A Perspective of the Plastics Waste Issue in the United States.” Makromolekulare Chemie Macromolecular Symposia, Vol. 57, No. 1, May 1992.
22Zeldovich, Lina. “Biofuel Made in New York.” The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), 15 February 2022.
23WATS website, 2022.
24Phipps, Lauren. “Pause for Celebration: A Global Plastics Treaty is on the Way.” GreenBiz, 11 March 2022.
25Blakemore, Erin. “Tupperware Parties: Suburban Women’s Plastic Path to Empowerment.” History channel, 1 March 2019.
26Waldrop, M. Mitchell. Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Simon & Schuster, 1992.
27Waldrop (see 26).
28Waldrop (see 26).