“Is zero waste some new recycling thing?” Respectfully, this is like asking if the Internet is some new computer thing. In the same way that the Internet has forever changed how we view and interact with the world, zero waste is a shift in our beliefs as to what constitutes waste. More accurately, it’s a view that society’s attitude to waste needs to be completely re-thought. The concept of “zero waste” is a new lens through which we can do a 180 on our perspective of garbage. It is nothing less than a state of mind.
Before we talk about zero waste, however, we need to talk about waste. No other species generates garbage. Humans are the only one. Waste plays no part in the natural world. In fact, there is no equivalent to garbage in the ecosystem. It simply does not exist. One organism’s waste is another’s food. Mother Nature recycles, reuses, repurposes, reconstitutes everything; its a perfect system!
Waste and garbage are human creations that started with the industrial revolution, exploded with the advent of plastics, and have now become a fundamental aspect of our human industrial growth economy. In fact, our economic system today – founded on the rapid purchase and disposal of “stuff” – requires constant and manufactured obsolescence (i.e., waste). The economic treadmill we’re running on cannot afford for us to reuse, recycle or repurpose. And while our economy cannot live without waste, our ecosystem cannot live with it. We are left to choose between the ecosystem and the economy.
The problem really came with modern technology, specifically the invention of plastics. Plastic takes tens of thousands of years to decompose. And since the rise of its generalized use less than 50 years ago, plastics are everywhere now. And when plastics do finally decompose, they leave toxic fibers in their wake.
So, for the sake of discussion, let’s reimagine waste as by-product. The by-products of making dinner, for instance, are food scraps, peels, possibly a few bones. In turn, this becomes compost, food for animals or stock for soup. It’s not waste. Likewise, the by-product of a construction project is firewood, materials for other projects or salvage to reuse on another build. Surplus old clothes become new quilts. And so on. This is not new thinking. Quite the contrary, it is extremely old and once commonplace logic for the countless generations before us that understood and lived with scarcity.
So what to do? We need to rethink waste. In fact, we need to stop thinking of waste as a something to get rid of. Waste – I mean by-product – is an opportunity, it’s a resource, and more importantly, it’s a responsibility. We can no longer be “wasters,” we must steward a healthy ecosystem for our kids. Rather than automatically tossing stuff out, become a “recycler” or a “reuser.” Be creative! Take back your power to do it yourself. Fix that old whatever or turn it into something new! Stop wasting.
Once you get the idea of zero waste, you’ll realize that it applies not just to stuff. It applies to time, energy, people. You’ll stop wasting hours in front of the TV and instead use your precious life-force to plant a garden, visit a friend or do some community work.
And let me leave you with one last thought. There is no better measure of our sustainability, of our resilience, than looking at our waste. It’s the crap we leave in our collective cultural wake that is our legacy. Let’s not be wasters!