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Chapter 1 Where the Modern Idea of Garbage Originated

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 1

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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.

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Chapter 7 The Science of Recycling

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 7

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Because the waste problem represents more than 11 billion tons per year on a global basis,1 the fundamental solution to all that waste needs to be on an industrial scale. On such a monumental scale, it is hard to leverage the intention and the form of an object. Reuse and recycling would really have their work cut out for them, and it is much easier to focus just on composition. That is where recycling comes in.

Recycling has been in full force since the dawn of the Bronze Age (3300 BCE). Metals have always been difficult commodities to come by, and there is evidence of bronze and other metals being collected in Europe and melted down for perpetual reuse.2 This behavior was tied entirely to the economics of waste. It was very expensive to harvest new bronze from rock and significantly easier to just melt down a broken bronze object and make something new.

During the Industrial Revolution, the need for metals was enormous, and metal recycling was in full force. Just imagine how much metal it took to build the railroads that crisscross Europe and North America. During World War II, the US government urged citizens to conserve as much as they could in terms of energy, food, materials, and other essentials. Citizens were encouraged to donate metals to the war effort—helping forge everything from bullets to tanks. The culture of recycling, unlike conservation, stayed in effect after the war.

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Chapter 3 Our Primary Global Solution to Waste: Bury It

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 3

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When I was a child, I had a pet rabbit that lived in a large cage on our apartment balcony. Every day I would feed her the vegetable peelings from our kitchen; she would happily eat them, later pooping out whatever her body didn’t use as spherical, pearl-like droppings in one corner of her cage. She would spend the rest of her time hanging out, dreaming perhaps about nice boy rabbits, in another corner of the cage. I never once saw her venture near the “poop corner” unless she had some specific business to do. Come to think of it, if I were that rabbit, I probably wouldn’t either.

The desire to be as far away from one’s own waste as possible seems to be hardwired in us. Landfills constantly face NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) challenges when getting zoned, and property values are lower near sewage treatment facilities, landfills, and composting sites. People simply don’t like hanging out near waste. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we invented the toilet. If you deconstruct what a toilet is, beyond being a nice ceramic seat, it’s a device whose purpose is to move our waste far away from us as fast as mechanically possible.

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Contents

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub
Medium 9781626560246

Chapter 9 The Economics of Outsmarting Waste

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 9

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The main reason why waste is sent to landfills and incinerators and why few of our outputs are recycled (like they technically can be) is all tied up in the economics of waste. It is simply more expensive to collect and recycle most things than the results are worth, and it’s cheap—because we allow it to be cheap—to send waste to a landfill or an incinerator.

Because our world is so economically motivated, perhaps we can make outsmarting waste more attractive by speaking the language of economics. There are hidden economic benefits of investing in the process of outsmarting waste on several different levels. Like the whole of outsmarting waste, these benefits can begin with you at home.

Although outsmarting waste may require an investment of your time, every aspect should save you money. If you don’t buy unnecessary items, you can save money for something more important. Packaged processed food tends to be more expensive then unpackaged fresh foods. Durable products, even though they may cost more initially, will last longer than disposables and should save you money over the long term. Buying used instead of new will also leave a few extra bucks in your pocket.

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Chapter 2 The Role of the Individual Purchase

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 2

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When looking at the root cause of garbage, we as consumers bear a large part of the responsibility. Garbage is predicated on our individual consumption. If we don’t buy something, it can never become garbage.

The manufacturers that make our products are here to serve the desires of consumers (you and me). Sure, by marketing to our desires they may influence what we want—or even introduce things we never knew we wanted—but in the end we are the individuals who pull the trigger and trade our money for those goods. No one is forcing us to buy anything. By contrast we voluntarily, and in fact willingly, buy things on a daily basis. We even gain pleasure in the act of buying. Consider the recent emergence of “retail therapy,” a pop-culture concept promoting the act of shopping as a way to beat depression.

Consumerism, in a way, is something of an addiction. We almost need to consume; we are constantly chasing after the next new thing (or high, for the sake of this metaphor), and our appetite to consume is never satisfied. One key difference between global consumerism and individual addiction is that this destructive habit doesn’t just harm our individual bodies; it affects our planet in a real way.

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Chapter 6 The Art of Upcycling

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 6

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© TerraCycle

The key difference between upcycling and reusing waste is that with upcycling the original intention of the object changes. For example, if a painter uses a painted canvas for a new painting, he is reusing the canvas. But if instead that same painter takes the canvas apart, uses the wood to make a frame, and uses the fabric to make a purse—that’s upcycling.

The idea of upcycling isn’t all that new. People have been upcycling for thousands of years. In fact, before the Industrial Revolution (and before processes typically needed for recycling became readily available), reuse and upcycling were common practices. There were no landfills or incinerators to speak of, and the idea of “disposable goods” simply didn’t exist in the way it does today. If your pants wore out, the remaining material could be used as cleaning rags or to make another piece of clothing. If a leg broke off your kitchen table, the wood that originally made the table could be used to make a shelf.

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Chapter 5 The Hierarchy of Waste

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 5

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From the macro perspective, we see garbage as a phenomenal volume of mixed complex materials and primarily useless outputs whose creation is driven by our chronic consumerism. If we are looking for the true value in garbage, it is best to look at garbage from the micro perspective—a perspective that looks at the makeup of garbage—and dissect what a single piece of garbage really is.

Let’s use the example of a “disposable” coffee cup. First, it is important to make the distinction between a new and a used coffee cup. Both are coffee cups, but one has positive value: a coffee shop would buy a new cup to serve you that venti chai latte. The other cup—the used one—has negative value (a coffee shop would not buy it back from you). Once you’ve indulged in your drink, you will most likely put the cup in a garbage can (as coffee cups are not recyclable in today’s recycling systems due to the plastic coating on the inside), the owner of which will have to pay for that coffee cup to be transported to a nearby landfill or incinerator.

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Chapter 4 The Energy Inherent in Our Waste

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 4

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From newspapers to hot dogs, all objects have an inherent amount of energy—their “caloric value.” Simply put, caloric value is the amount of energy that is released when a particular thing is burned. Some objects burn at a positive caloric value, including candles, cigarettes, or basically anything that will continue to burn after you put a lighter to it to get it going. This can easily be calculated in a laboratory by measuring the amount of heat that the object releases per gram and subtracting the amount of energy that was used to get the burn going. Objects with a negative caloric value, on the other hand, consume more energy than they produce in the process of burning.

Calories from items with a positive caloric value are exactly the same type that we try to avoid when we go on our annual New Year’s diet. In other words, if you took sugary, buttery, oil-drenched, icing- and sprinkle-topped doughnuts (yum), they would burn much better (giving you more calories) than things like asparagus, celery, apples, and other foods with a negative caloric value.

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Chapter 8 The Critical Element of Separation

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 8

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In nature the waste of organisms is typically spread out in small quantities over a wide area. Unlike humans, animals in nature don’t head to the same spot every time they have to poop. They don’t preserve their dead, place them in caskets, and later bury them in designated areas. And they certainly don’t have any garbage, let alone put it all into a big pile.

When outputs are mixed together as they are in a landfill, it is harder for them to become useful inputs. Putting even useful outputs into the garbage will render them useless outputs. While this is partly because they will not naturally decompose in a landfill, it is also because it is very hard to recycle a soda bottle (#1 plastic) when it is squashed together with a banana, a yogurt cup (#5 plastic), and a used rag.

Any one of these outputs could be recycled or composted individually. A soda bottle could be melted down into plastic, as could a yogurt cup. A banana could be composted, and a rag could be shredded and made into paper or new fabric.

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