10 Chapters
Medium 9781626560246

Chapter 9 The Economics of Outsmarting Waste

Szaky, Tom 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 8 The Critical Element of Separation

Szaky, Tom 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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Chapter 6 The Art of Upcycling

Szaky, Tom 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 1 Where the Modern Idea of Garbage Originated

Szaky, Tom 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 4 The Energy Inherent in Our Waste

Szaky, Tom 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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