One solution to our garbage problem might lie in taking inspiration from nature and creating useful waste.
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.
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).
This transition represents the first time in history that a species has moved away from a circular material supply chain—where every output in nature is cycled through multiple organisms until it becomes an input again—toward a linear one.
Take, for example, the plastic bag that may have been given to you when you bought this book. The useful life of a plastic bag is perhaps an hour or two—in other words, about the time it takes you to travel from the mall to your home. After that one trip, the bag typically ends up in your garbage on its way to the local landfill. Once at the landfill, it stays there, in some form, virtually forever.
Plastics, due to their molecular stability, do not easily break down into components useful to nature. Some estimates show a plastic bag taking 500 to 1,000 years to degrade. We say “estimates” because Alexander Parkes invented the very idea of plastic in 1856, and not enough time has passed for any plastics to fully degrade.
Additionally, a plastic bag does not just degrade like a banana peel, which is consumed by a variety of hungry microbes. Instead the plastic bag photodegrades—a process whereby the bag breaks apart into smaller and smaller pieces. The resulting particles are deadly when ingested by living things and can also contain pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and endocrine disrupters. Worse yet, they often resemble food, like zooplankton, and are inadvertently consumed by animals, such as jellyfish, who mistake the harmful materials for lunch.
But the story of garbage doesn’t end with a few dead jellyfish. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every square mile of our oceans; this material, after damaging the aquatic ecosystem, may somewhat ironically end up in our order of sushi or fish-and-chips—potentially helping us get cancer earlier in life. This is just one of the many possible consequences of throwing out product waste. A recent report from a cooperative that includes UNEP and the World Health Organization (WHO) said that more than 800 man-made chemicals, including bisphenol A (BPA), were found in products we consume every day.
To further compound the problem of useless outputs, today we live in a world of chronic consumerism—a world where we buy much more than we need. This unique behavioral trend began just after the Second World War. In the late 1940s, our forebears had not only lived through the Great Depression but also just emerged from the biggest war the world had ever seen. Humanity needed to rebuild. Some countries started by putting returning veterans to work converting wartime factories into firms that served civilian consumption, later expanding to meet growing demand.
Due to the development and the commercial viability of plastics and other man-made materials, we were perfectly suited for the arrival of cheap, disposable products. The production of such products made it easier for common people to acquire luxuries that were once expensive or even unattainable—not to mention to buy their way out of doing dishes by hand and keep food from spoiling longer than before. Just think of the joy brought to homemakers when in 1947 Earl Silas Tupper patented Tupperware or when the scientists at DuPont invented nylon.
And it worked. In the years following WWII, the economy rebounded better than anyone could have expected, and we have maintained a growing consumer appetite ever since. In parallel, and in no small part due to postwar global prosperity, the human population grew sevenfold during the same time period; a population that was just over 1 billion people at the beginning of the twentieth century is today well over 7 billion.
As you might expect from a system based largely on the production and the consumption of synthetic materials, the resulting garbage problem followed our economic growth. In 1905 product-related waste was well under 100 pounds per person per year in the United States. Additionally, it was primarily made from useful outputs like wood, cotton, and other materials that nature can use as a positive input. Since then product waste has grown by 1,400 percent. What’s more, 75 percent of that waste is now made of useless outputs like plastics and other complex, man-made materials that nature cannot repurpose. It is even worse when you consider how much our population has grown and that the problem grows proportionally with it.
But why should we change? The production and the consumption of cheap goods was the silver bullet that brought us out of national depression and global war and into the greatest period of economic prosperity in human history. Perhaps we should go on celebrating this achievement with more marketing and more consumption.
And it looks like we have. Many people define their lives based on their accumulated stuff. Just look at the admiration our society has for people who drive a fancy car, live in a big house, or are profiled on TV shows like MTV Cribs and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Our accumulated things define our rank in society and are points in the system whereby we are “scored.” I personally fall into the same quagmire: I drive a fancy sports car, recently bought a larger house, and care about how much my business grows year over year. While I’m trying very hard to change, I can tell you that it is an uphill battle.
All economic and employment growth, by definition, was and still is predicated on people’s buying stuff. To the detriment of our ecosystem, there is no public policy or popular culture to curb consumerism or slow population growth. Both are direct drivers of our current definition of prosperity—a definition grounded in economic growth and measured by looking at gross domestic and national product. In fact, we seem to focus entirely on driving consumption instead of curbing it.
Recently, I was having a conversation with the chief executive officer of a major North American waste management company, who told me that the size of his business is directly related to the size of the economy (typically with a lag of about a year, as it does take time for the objects we buy to become waste). With the modern market economy, we value companies not only on their objective size but also on their growth and potential for more growth. Growth is our economy’s insatiable goal, and the larger our economy, the larger the waste problem.
Where we are today is entirely natural, and, in a way, it is built into our DNA, as the objective goal of all living organisms is to live and grow, both as individuals and as a species. These innate desires—some of the fundamental cornerstones of sustaining life—are met by gathering food, building a home, and reproducing.
Have you ever been stuffed after a big dinner only to find yourself downing a large piece of cheesecake that could have served as a meal in and of itself? In all living things, as in humans, the desire to consume is largely uncontrolled. If you put a big pile of sugar in front of a healthy mouse, it will eat well beyond what it needs to survive each day until it becomes obese and diabetic and eventually dies. The poor (yet sugar-rich) mouse simply cannot control itself from binging on easily attainable calories.
The reason why nature has sustained itself in relative harmony for millions of years is because a number of external factors control the ability (or inability) of that mouse to gain food, find shelter, and have offspring. Instead of a mouse’s controlling its individual consumption, its ability to consume is indirectly controlled by other organisms and nature at large. Even if the mouse wants infinite sugar, in nature it has to contend with predators, competition for sustenance, and a general lack of abundance.
Predators In nature our friend, the soon-to-be-obese mouse, has to worry about a whole host of other animals, from the friendly barn owl to the sly house cat—creatures that would love to make the mouse their supper. Humans have solved that problem by controlling, avoiding, or killing all of our natural predators and by preventing and combating disease (perhaps our last true predator). These days we don’t see wolves and bears roaming around our villages like they used to, and when we get sick we have better treatment than ever before.
Competition for sustenance Anytime there is food in nature, the “dinner bell” is heard (or smelled) by every potential diner in earshot (or perhaps “noseshot”), making it hard to gorge oneself into obesity. If you leave a pile of nuts and berries in the forest, within minutes a whole host of woodland creatures would get in on the party. The pile would be gone by the time late-comers arrived.
Because we effectively match the supply of goods with demand (and in most cases overproduce), humans simply don’t have competition for consumption in the way there is competition in nature. So when that new iPhone sells out, we simply make more (God forbid limiting supply!). It is bad business to run out of stock.
Lack of abundance In nature it takes time and hard work to find food. Just think about the energy you would expend to feed yourself if you were dropped in a forest while reading this book. First, I would apologize to you for the teleporting powers of this text. It would be very hard for you to find food, and you may not come out alive (unless you have trained or watched enough of those TV survival shows). Either way, the slimy grubs and the bark you would eventually have to consume wouldn’t be quite the same as ordering Chinese takeout, and they would be much harder to find than the delivery guy on his Vespa outside your door.
In the human system, with the amazing progress of science, we produce more food than we can possibly eat and more products than we can possibly enjoy. According to a recent study, 30 to 50 percent of the food we produce is thrown away due to its appearance or a lack of demand. That’s 1.2 billion to 2 billion tons of food per year being thrown out! While that may seem staggering, we often throw away durable goods, such as clothing, before we have even used them, just because our tastes have evolved since we bought them.
No predators, no competition, and uncontrolled abundance put us in a truly unique position. With few external controls to speak of, we are that gluttonous mouse, gorging itself on the proverbial pile of sugar.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. By rethinking how we produce and consume, we can live sustainably and return to a harmonious relationship with nature. As individuals we can impose on ourselves the same limitations that predators, competition, and lack of abundance have placed on our nonhuman earthly co-inhabitants. From there a personal shift in consumption habits can move outward through our friends and networks, ultimately affecting the larger society in the form of our culture and perhaps later our laws.
So far as ideas for where to start are concerned, nature itself seems to have some pretty good ones.
Nature simply has no concept of garbage, or useless outputs. Think about when your dog eats a plastic object, thinking it is food, or your cat chews on an extension cord. In nature all outputs are useful. It is a natural wisdom that we should echo, not in the innocent ignorance that leads some unwitting creatures to eat inedible trash but in its fundamentality.
The emerging field of biomimicry, championed by luminaries from Janine Benyus to Paul Hawken, has effectively commercialized this exact notion. They have found repeatedly that taking inspiration from nature can help us solve concrete human engineering challenges.
For example, chemical companies seeking to develop self-cleaning paint turned to the lotus—a plant that needs to keep the surfaces of its leaves clean despite living in muddy ponds and swamps (which are, admittedly, strange environments for something so beautiful and seemingly pristine). To help stay dirt-free, the lotus plant evolved tiny ridges and bumps that stop water droplets from spreading across the entire surface of its leaves. Water beads form, slide down the leaves of the plant, and carry off dirt with them. Taking a tip from nature, paint developers created paint that leaves tiny bumps when it dries—helping water form droplets to carry dirt away.
Another example of effective biomimicry is the Japanese Shinkansen “Bullet Train.” At more than 200 miles per hour, the Shinkansen is the fastest train in the world. Due to changes in air pressure and the speed of the train, every time the train came out of a tunnel it would create a micro sonic boom. The Bullet Train became something of a noise problem, with villages miles away complaining. Eiji Nakatsu, avid bird-watcher and the chief engineer on the case, found that modeling the front end of the train after the beak of the kingfisher—a bird that can dive into bodies of water with almost no splash—not only solved the sound problem but also saved 15 percent in power while increasing the train’s speed by 10 percent.
When it comes to mimicking nature to our own benefit, we should be aware that nature doesn’t innovate at the rate humans do.
To learn from nature and be responsible to it in the long run, we should focus on creating useful waste rather than outputs that are useless (and potentially toxic). It is a proposition where all stakeholders are winners.
As individual consumers, we should look to buy products that are made from natural materials (their by-products make for useful outputs), ideally avoiding complex materials altogether. By consciously controlling our consumption and buying products that produce useful outputs instead of useless ones, we can take a big step toward eliminating the idea of garbage.
Reprinted with permission from Outsmart Waste: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It, by Tom Szaky, and published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014.