10 Chapters
Medium 9781626560246

Chapter 3 Our Primary Global Solution to Waste: Bury It

Szaky, Tom 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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Chapter 6 The Art of Upcycling

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 6

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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 If a leg broke off your kitchen table, the wood that originally made the table could be used to make a shelf.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 5 The Hierarchy of Waste

Szaky, Tom 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 2 The Role of the Individual Purchase

Szaky, Tom 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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