Produce no waste

Almost every other day I empty the cardboard box I have beside the sink.  It’s my ‘Put things to recycle in here’ box.  I live by myself.  Why am I generating 3 or 4 boxes a week of recyclable materials?  

This is apart from the recyclable materials I keep for various things – jam jars for when I make jam, bottles that serve as vases or for water, juice boxes for germinating seeds in. 

One of Holmgren’s 12 permaculture principles is ‘Produce no waste’.  The explanation on it reads: 

“Permaculture aims to connect inputs and outputs so that different elements meet each other’s needs. For example, if I save my kitchen waste and put it into a compost bin, I can make compost that can then be used to grow crops which I can then eat. I have saved waste (kitchen scraps that produce methane in landfill sites, and need transport to get it there), reduced external inputs (I don’t need to buy compost) and increased yields (better soil, more crops, more worms.)

Careful maintenance and investing in good quality long lasting products can also help reduce waste and overall consumption levels.  As they say “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle”. “

I think of myself as re-cycle aware but maybe I’m not aware enough.   Reading the principle, made me wonder whether recycling and ‘producing no waste’ are the same thing.  Maybe recycling is a method of dealing with household ‘waste’ – something that I think is inevitable, and a normal part of my city life of going to the supermarket, ordering products online, and occasionally eating out and carrying home my leftovers in a recyclable container.

My household waste that goes into the landfill bin is much less than goes into the recycle bin.  Most weeks it is one small pedal bin bag.  But even that, I’m now thinking about.  I’ve just read an article by someone who aims to live generating no household waste – she excludes recyclable materials from her definition of waste though.

To my mind, recycling is a form of “waste diversion”.  It is a bit of a reduction in the waste stream, but, as one writer said, it doesn’t call into question the very concept of waste.    And it isn’t a  complete method, because dealing with recycling itself incurs various costs which may or may not out outweigh the environmental benefits.  On this, see for example, the book The Zero Waste Solution, which, “exposes the greenwashing behind renewed efforts to promote waste incinerators as safe, nontoxic energy suppliers, and gives detailed information on how communities can battle incineration projects that, even at their best, emit dangerous particles into the atmosphere, many of which remain unregulated or poorly regulated.”

On an anecdotal level, stories abound – I don’t know whether they’re true or not – that recycling is a waste of time.  (What is wasted time a by-product of?)

Holmgren’s principle of ‘produce no waste’ is, I think, drawn from the notion that nature produces no waste.   But Justin McGuirk makes the challenging point that, ‘Waste is precisely what dissolves the distinction between nature and culture. … Nature and waste have fused at both planetary and microbiological scales. Similarly, waste is not merely a by-product of culture: it is culture. We have produced a culture of waste.’  He argues, ‘If waste is the mesh that entangles nature and culture, it’s necessarily the defining material of our time.’

The principle to produce no waste, is laudable but, I think, isn’t strong enough to deal with the reality McGuirk writes of, for example,  ‘What does it mean to say that, by 2050, as much as 12 billion tonnes of plastic will have accumulated in landfills or the natural environment? What does it mean to observe that more than a million plastic bags are consumed every minute globally, and that this amounts to between 500 billion and 5 trillion a year? Such numbers present a seemingly precise quantification yet one that’s utterly ungraspable.’

Looking out of my window I can see ‘nature’ in the form of birds, trees, vegetation, blue sky, and I can see blue and grey plastic dustbins lined up along the street, litter of all types lining the gutters, cars parked nose to tail in every available space, houses with gas central heating vapour pulsing from the vent pipes.  An Amazon delivery van is pulling up to a neighbour’s, and so on.  The rightness of McGuirk’s idea that we are in a culture of waste is in plain sight.

Making ‘produce no waste’ more than a laudable principle, that preoccupies well-intentioned, perhaps, fringe groups as they try to act on it in their work and lives does not come close to reorienting 8 billion (soon to be 10 billion) people across the globe to degrowth societies that mean shrinking rather than growing economies, to use less of the world’s dwindling resources.

I note though, that one of Holmgren’s other principles is ‘Use edges and value the marginal’.  This is explained as, ‘The place where two eco-systems or habitats meet (e.g. woodland and meadow) is generally more productive and richer in the variety of species present than either habitat on its own…. Marginal could be ideas, views, unusual plants, wild animals or people at the ‘edge’ of society.’

Suppose we consider the permaculture movement as an edge or marginal movement to the Culture of Waste, described by McGuirk, then what can we use or value from it that would productively foster the ‘produce no waste’ principle?

There are some tiny signs of a shifting of design approaches that may generate a tipping point favouring no waste.  McGuirk reminds us that ‘Design has been a driving forces behind our prodigious waste streams in the past century. As the handmaidens of commerce, designers have been complicit in the throwaway economy: manufacturing planned obsolescence, promoting convenience culture, entombing products in layers of seductive packaging.’

It could fall to designers, then to reverse their thinking and approaches and become a driving force towards now waste.  Encouragingly he points out, ‘Shorn of blissful ignorance and only too alert to the mounting crisis around us, designers are reinventing themselves as material researchers, waste-stream investigators and students of global economic flows.’ 

He continues with more on the possibilities and necessities of reversing.  I wonder if this will come about?  I wonder how far it is possible. Is it a never to be achieved aspiration rather than a real human possibility?  There are vested interests, geo-politics, and forces working against reversing a culture of waste (read Kim Stanley Robinson’s book The Ministry for the Future) but there are also those working alongside Holmgren and others, towards principles complementary to Holmgren’s.  One I hold dear is, “The decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.” – The Seventh Generation Principle . Maybe, it is not too pie in the sky to hope that the movement will morph into a global mandate to produce no waste.

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