Useful Waste: The Beginning and Ending of Garbage

One solution to our garbage problem might lie in taking inspiration from nature and creating useful waste.

| February 2015

Inspiration from Nature

The plastic water bottle is just one man-made output that is useless to nature because it does not break down easily. In fact, not enough time has passed for any plastics to fully degrade since the very idea was conceived of in the 1850s.

Photo by Fotolia/blackday

Outsmart Waste (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), by Tom Szaky, explores why the garbage crisis exists and explains how we can solve it by eliminating the very idea of garbage. To outsmart waste, Szaky says, we first have to understand it, then change how we create it and finally rethink what we do with it. The following excerpt from Chapter 1, “Where the Modern Idea of Garbage Originated,” describes how humans have transitioned from the circular material supply chain to a linear one and teaches us the wisdom in useful waste.

Human refuse—“garbage”—is a modern idea that arose out of our desire to chronically consume stuff that is made from ever more complex, man-made materials.

To outsmart waste we need to eliminate the very idea of waste; to do so we need to understand where the concept of waste came from and what factors brought about its existence.

Useful versus Useless Outputs

Why is it that garbage exists in the human system but not more broadly in nature? Nature is a beautiful harmony of systems whereby every system’s output is a useful input for other systems. An acorn that falls from a tree is an important input for a squirrel that eats it. The by-product of that delicious meal—the squirrel’s poop—is an important input for the microbes that consume it. The output of the microbes—rich humus and soil—is in turn the very material from which a new oak tree may grow. Even the carbon dioxide that the squirrel exhales is what that tree may inhale. This cycle is the fundamental reason why life has thrived on our planet for millions of years. It’s like the Ouroboros—the ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail; in a way, nature truly is a constant cycle of consuming itself.

Even we humans, up until about a century ago, lived our lives in the same way: all of our outputs—from the carbon we exhaled to our feces and product waste—were cycled by nature until they became useful inputs again.

Yet today much of our waste breaks this age-old cycle by not being useful to any living organism. In the past century, the raw materials that make up our products have changed from easily degradable animal, plant, and other natural sources to highly refined, typically non-renewable resources (primarily oil). Today even when we use renewable resources (like trees), we typically render them useless outputs (like a used coffee cup) that cannot be easily recycled (due to the thin plastic lining on the inside).

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