What To Do About Zero Waste
Zero Waste is a journey; we move toward it. This concept is a major reason many people do not understand what it means. “Zero waste?” people ask. “How is THAT possible.” In our current (1st) worldview, our consumerist way of thinking, our linear paradigm, it’s hard for many to fathom. But it is, most certainly, possible. Just look around. There are places, people and businesses that are very, very close (UC San Diego, Sony, Subaru). It also is, most certainly, our problem – because we live here and there are going to be ancestors who are counting on us to care. It’s called trans-generational justice.
A major hurdle keeping the truly committed to absolute ZERO waste is design. A major hurdle keeping the skeptical from the BELIEF in the possibility of zero waste is perspective.
When we ponder what Zero Waste means, we need to change. Change our minds, change our perspective, and change the words to the exact opposite. “Zero” becomes “All,” and “Waste” becomes “Resource.” Waste Management becomes Resource Management, and instead of throwing everything away, we strive to throw nothing away. We strive to; we hope to… but we truly, genuinely, from our gut, hope to and try to. Learning requires a change in thinking and behavior. In fact, it’s been said that learning can be defined as a change in behavior. You know how to do something new or you think in a different way. In this case, our first lesson might be the word ‘feedstock.’ Aluminum cans are a feedstock for new aluminum; banana peels are a feedstock for new soil. The sub-heading lesson there is ‘closed-loop system.’ Nature is a closed-loop system: no waste.
So what do you actually DO? Just think differently? Well, no, of course not. The thinking leads to action. Here are some easy action items:
1. Take the word and concept of trash out of your life – out of your consciousness. Every time – and I do mean EVERY time – you are about to rid yourself of some… let’s say ‘discard’ (instead of garbage, trash or waste) ask yourself where it should go. This will be an evolutionary process. It will become part of what you think about – part of what makes you tick and part of what makes you sick. The piles of paper packaging and organic discards in the food courts at your favorite mall will definitely make you ill. Some discards are much easier than others. Some require an effort, but here’s what happens with that effort: Feedstocks are generated and eventually gain value.
Not that long ago, only #1 and #2 plastics were accepted in my curbside blue bin in San Diego. But due to the ever growing piles of #3-6 (yogurt and butter tubs, etc.) the city now accepts not only those, but most hard plastic items (think toys, buckets and pots). A market was created. Was it because people were throwing these items in the blue bin? Not sure, but I figured if enough people throw enough of the same feedstock in there, it might just be easier for the MRF (Materials Recovery Facility) to find a market for that material than to keep pulling it off the conveyor belt. Check your city’s environmental services department (or waste management) website for instructions on what goes where in your curbside collection.
2. Everything organic should be composted. Unfortunately, that’s not realistic for home composting, because protein discards (meat scraps, bones, cheese, and the like) will result in nasty fly/maggot issues. For an industrial, enclosed digester, everything is acceptable; it gets so hot in there, a dead rat can be composted right along with all the other putrescibles. But for you backyard composters, discards from your fruits, vegetables, breads, nuts, grains, egg shells, coffee grounds – non-meat stuff – can be easily composted. You do need the space in your yard. You will want to cover your pile or get an enclosed bin to keep the varmints from stealing your booty. You’ll need some leaves from your yard to balance the chemistry. But you and your plants will love the soil you make. In my “Compost: Win Infinity” video, I show you my setup and give you the “no-brainer” (Nora Goldstein, BioCylce Magazine) benefits of keeping organics out of the landfill. Your setup may need to be different depending on where you live, but worry not, there are numerous composting resources out there. I just Googled “home composting” and clicked on the video tab… 156,000 results.
People think I’m littering, but it’s much better to toss your banana peel in a nearby bush (you can certainly hide it from sight) than to put it in the “going-to-the-landfill-to-create-methane-by-biodegrading-anaerobicly”discard can. See how the change of mindset makes you look at a trash can differently?
3. I don’t trust recycling in public spaces, especially at the colleges where I teach. There is no incentive for collection workers to separate recyclables or to pull non-recyclables from the blue bins. So, in many circumstances, everything gets dumped into the trash receptacle on the janitor’s cart. You just never know. I take all my recyclables with me, putting them in a reusable bag in my car. It’s REALLY not that hard. It’s part of who I am now. And that’s not only for items that are accepted in my curbside blue bin pickup.
Metal, e-waste, textiles, plastic film, and batteries are also source separated in my house – and virtually everywhere I go. I take my metal to California Metals in El Cajon. I wait for free alkaline battery recycling opportunities before moving my box of batteries. I go to a neighborhood e-waste business for all my discards with a power cord. We give away gads of goods to reuse entities like Goodwill, Salvation Army and Disabled Veterans. I use freecycle.org or craigslist free stuff. My bag of bags goes to the grocery store every month or so. My socks with holes, ruined shorts, and other non-reusable fabrics go to thrift stores. We also use TerraCycle for chip bags and bathroom discards (empty toothpaste tubes, deodorant, dental floss, etc.). My household of four (three adults, one teen) produces one or two small bags of trash (oops… non-recyclable discards) each week. We divert everything else, since we compost, donate and repurpose everything else.
The hard-to-recycle items are a conundrum. I have small piles of rubber (garden hoses, sports balls, bike tires, etc.), PVC and paint cans waiting for a place to go. The paint can go to the Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collection at the landfill, but that process is so insufferable, I’m surprised anyone does it. HHW needs to have regular curbside collection as well, but arrrgh! how to pay for it? I also have a broken patio umbrella that I will eventually dismantle into its various materials for recycling. But how many people are willing to do that? Not many.
So we have a long way to go, but each individual does not. Just commit to BEING that new person. You care. You stop and think. You insist on an uncompromised attitude toward your discards. You do use the small packets of ketchup/mustard/honey at restaurants. You will not be a part of humanity that allows the films Idiocracy and Wall-E to come true, because if you’re not for zero waste, how much waste are you for?
Homo terramondus to the Rescue
“Look at all this junk. What should we do with it?”
“Just throw it away.”
It’s amazing that people still say that. But what they are really saying is, “Move it from here to there.”
It’s been said that there is no “away,” but there is. That’s the problem. There is an “away,” and it’s over there somewhere – not in my neighborhood, not in my backyard. We don’t need to worry about it; someone else is taking care of all that. Just throw it away and forget about it. It’s long past time for all that thought to cease.
Whether it’s here or there, someone needs to “manage” it. Consumers and manufacturers should be in on that deal. They should carry some if not all of that burden. We call it “waste” management, and that’s where we need to make the change. The Life Cycle Analysis of any product always includes its end-of-use. The Zero Waste Plan in Austin, TX started the paradigm shift in that city by renaming the process: “resource” management. Turns out “it” is a pile of resources.
What shall we do about it? You’re not going to like the answer. How about coming to terms? How about working a lot harder than we do now? How about raising our consciousness? How about modeling the correct behavior and expecting the same from others? How about accepting what we are, what we do and how we must change? Acknowledging that we are in a bad place with our stuff gets us past denial. Stop denying that we throw too much stuff “away,” and start understanding that we need to think “resources,” not “waste.” And analyzing how we got here will help us find solutions to dig our way out.
In the TV show, Hoarders, people literally get barricaded inside their homes. They keep collecting things until there’s no room. And then they keep collecting. They move “it” from here to there. “It” consumes the resident(s), the dwelling, the psyche of the hoarder, and eventually the patience of their family and friends.
Of course most hoarders – without some intervention and therapy – can’t stop. But people who are not clinical hoarders are equally guilty, only worse. That’s right, we – the supposed non-hoarders of the world – just store it in a different place. We justify our hoarding by “throwing it away.” We deny we are hoarding. And of course, we think that’s OK. But if we don’t stop, we will be consumed; our communities will be overrun. “Away” will get filled up. Then what?
If you think of our communities (or municipalities) as organisms, they are no different than those poor souls on TV who cannot get rid of anything. And, no, throwing it “away” is not getting rid of it. The only difference is that the community organism “manages” the hoarded material through a “waste” management department. Despite the cold, hard fact that approximately 90% of that “waste” material is actually a resource that can be categorically identified. Waste management equals digging a hole or starting a fire. “It’s OK; we’ll make energy from it. Why not? There's nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. There’s nowhere to put it. Maybe we can just build another landfill. Let the next generation worry about it. Whaddaya gonna do, stop making trash?”
Imagine a world where discards are resources. It’s easy if you try. Imagine a world where “away” means “back,” where circular material flows are part of the norm. Widget made, widget returned, widget repurposed. The end-of-life is actually designed into the life-cycle strategy of the widget. How do we get to a place like that? How do we evolve into a being that truly cares about what we’re going to do with all our stuff? While driving down the street on “trash” day recently, I saw black bin after black bin with a cardboard box on top of a full bin, propping the lid open. Right next to all of them was a blue bin with the lid closed tight – obviously not full. How can people think like this? Do we need to evolve into a new species of the Homo genus in order to put a cardboard box in the blue bin? What must Homo sapiens become to get over this seemingly minor hump?
Latin for “wise man,” the term Homo sapiens seems debatable at times. It feels instead like the movies Idiocracy and Wall-E are coming true.
Evolution may indeed be the key – the only way out. If we were to evolve into Homo terramondus (that’s my made-up species, which means, “Earth-Loving Man”) we would be fine, because – by definition – we would care for the Earth that sustains us, the Earth of which we are a part. Our care for the ecosphere would take precedence, just as the lord almighty dollar rules Homo economicus.
Another cold, hard fact: We don’t care for the earth first. And don’t say you do if you think of your discards as trash (they're not, they're resources). Don’t say you care about the earth first if you are NOT sickened every time you throw a banana peel in the trash can. My friends and family mock me when I speak of such evolution – as if our evolution has ceased. We are what we are. “It’s human nature,” they say. As if THIS is our destiny; THIS is all there is – the pinnacle. Our evolution has stopped. Just like the people of the Dark Ages thought, “This is IT.” The post-World War II American Dream, with the white picket fences and chickens in every pot. That was IT, our destiny. We haven’t stopped evolving, and if we’re to see the 22nd, 23rd and 24th Centuries we’d better hope we continue.
We didn’t know we were in the Renaissance WHILE we were in the Renaissance. That’s not possible. Do we still teach that the world is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, that birds fly to the moon in the winter, and that maggots spontaneously create in the presence of meat? No. So why do we continue to teach farming in monocultures with petroleum fertilizers and pesticides? Why do still accept that throwing things “away” is OK? Why do we insist that divesting from unsustainable energy sources (black rocks and black goo) is something that only crazy people do? Why do we allow women to vote? Why aren’t there “Whites Only” signs in Alabama cafes? Why isn’t same-sex marriage illegal everywhere? Because we change. We evolve. We will never stop evolving. Pull tabs coming off of tin cans and being thrown on the ground was never a good idea, but we did it. Plastic bottles with screw-off tops that are not leashed to the bottle is also a bad idea that will one day be changed. Planned obsolescence is also a bad idea whose time is up. My microwave was rendered useless recently because a piece of plastic broke inside the door mechanism (check it out: http://youtu.be/UnAFLjNaW9I). Resource management and a circular economy will and must take the place of landfill hoarding and the linear materials flow that perpetuates it.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Mahatma Gandhi. We are now in the Anthropocene – or so I’ve been told. It’s the epoch dominated by Homo sapiens. Will we dominate it into or own extinction? Oh, there you go again… pooh-poohing the radical talk. OK then, you tell me how the world will work in 200 years when there is no fossil fuel. The sage author Daniel Quinn (of Ishmael fame) said – and I paraphrase, “If humans are still around in 200 years, they will be living in a way that is a lot different from how we live now. The earth cannot support seven billion people living our way.”
Sustainability Needs Your Help
Sustainability needs a boost. It needs to get out more. Maybe it needs a face-lift or a name change – or a nickname. Referred to as “susty” in some social media nooks and crannies, it’s just plain old boring #sustainability on Twitter. The debutante ball for sustainability has yet to happen. People who are not sustainability managers, environmentalists or “green” business owners seem to be missing the point, and that’s because susty needs our help. We need to more thoroughly and more consistently explain to the lay world what it is and why it’s important.
If sustainability were a teenager, she would certainly have insecurities. “Strange girl… we just can’t quite figure out what she’s all about.” What exactly is sustainability? How does one notice it? How does one achieve it? Who is REALLY being sustainable? And who’s only claiming to be? People need to know what to do; they need solutions in the form of action items. But they first must be able to understand the language.
For many of us, the early pursuits to “save the planet,” “go green,” “be environmentally responsible,” and “reduce our ecological footprint” did not include a well-defined glossary of official eco-terminology. We couldn’t talk the talk. Anaerobic digestion, life-cycle analysis, residuals mitigation, extended producer responsibility, and reverse-network capabilities are either too technical or too starch-collar. Our lexicon was ‘recycling’ and maybe ‘composting.’ Waste not, want not. Now that we speak that high-level susty language, we need to translate it into simple terms, or risk losing our audience in a hurry. And if the wordsmithing of our message is critical to keeping our audience, then the frequency of our message will be vital in our pursuit of changing minds.
Now that we’re in it – and genuinely want to be responsible – we need to get the word out. Brag a little. One Earth Recycling, owned and operated by Josh Turchin, has done just that. His latest business model is recycling storefronts at the mall – a “boutique environment with crisp design and lighting patterned on today’s most successful retailers.” Heading to the store? Drop by the One Earth storefront and redeem your recyclables. His video is on their website: www.oneearthrecycling.com. It’s an overview, “big picture” video more than a “hey, look what we’re doing to be more sustainable” message. And that makes sense, since his entire business is centered on one of the practices of sustainability: recycling.
Solar companies, green building consultants and reuse retailers fall into that same category – they are in the business of sustainability. But hoteliers, accountants and breweries are not. So when those types of businesses (as well as manufacturers, shipping companies and an endless list of others who are getting on board with “CSRs,” Corporate Social Responsibility reports) lead the way in communicating the paradigm shift toward zero waste, a circular economy and sustainability as core elements of their business culture, we need to pay attention to that modeled behavior – and applaud it. We are starting to see more and more sustainability managers handling initiatives that are good for the planet, good for the bottom line and good for the company image. They’re only good for company image, however, if the word gets out.
Social Media needs media. Facebook is basically a video player. Twitter is virtually wall-to-wall images – or links to articles, blogs and videos. Instagram has dropped their 15-second limitation on video. The time is right for, and the culture is ripe with video content. For businesses whose business is sustainability, they should be crowing from the mountain top with creative ways to communicate what sets them apart from others in their sector. They need to connect personally in this digital world we’ve carved out for ourselves. Faces on the screen with real, “from the heart” messaging. For businesses whose business is NOT sustainability, but for whom sustainability is part of their company’s heart, they have a strategic need – and in fact an obligation – to inform the world. Getting that word out is vital to communicate that susty should be part of ALL businesses’ hearts and souls; it is part of the change that we must make, and it should be an overt and alert part of all PEOPLE’S hearts and minds; it needs to be part of our culture.
The cold hard truth is, where business and celebrity go, the flock will follow. Where children push their parents, the parents will pay attention. Focused, strategic video content rollout is a great way to brag a little. And if your company is dancing with susty at the pre-debutante warmup party, the world needs to know. The party needs to get started. The children need to know. Sustainability awareness and acceptance will take time, but it will be well worth the effort when the enlightened masses gasp, “I get it.”
The consumer needs to be able to pick: products and services from companies that pay attention to environmental responsibility because it’s part of their core mission statement and company culture, or products and services from companies that don’t seem to care – or that only claim to care.
Bigsly Enterprises (www.bigsly.com) is a video production company that talks that talk, shoots those images and walks that walk. The company collaborates with Zero Waste San Diego, a non-profit advocate and educator of zero waste philosophies, programs and legislation. When Zero Waste San Diego invites sponsors and presenters to be part of their annual Zero Waste Symposium, one can rest assured there are no green-washers allowed. The 2016 symposium was held at the County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa. The presentations covered reuse/repair, organics diversion and plastics in the marine biosphere. The presetnations can be seen here: http://zerowastesandiego.org/zero-waste-symposium-presenters/ (or go to zerowastesandiego.org, click on the “Events” pulldown, and select “Zero Waste Symposium Presenters”).
These presentations testify to the programs happening right now. These people need to be heard. Their programs need to be promoted and supported financially – shouted from the mountain tops. And green-hearted businesses that are championing sustainability have to be heard as well: strategically, creatively and compellingly.
We will get there. The “future us” is looking back at the “current us” and saying the same thing we are now saying about the “past us”: “We really did that? We had sharp metal pop tops on our soda cans? …and threw them on the ground? We had WHITES ONLY signs on restrooms? We let raw sewage flow into the ocean? We didn’t allow women to vote? We dumped our used car oil in the gutter? We drove without seat belts? We didn’t have blue bins?”
Forty years from now, it will seem unfathomable that we thought an unsustainable energy system would last forever: sheer insanity. Thirty years from now it will seem crazy that we had linear material streams in manufacturing: nonsense. Twenty years from now we will be flabbergasted that we chucked organic material into a hole or a furnace: idiocy. It’s time to start communicating how we’re getting smarter.
Bob Sly is a 30-year multimedia professional who has been covering zero waste happenings since 2007. Zero Waste is a goal we must perpetually pursue.