FAQs

  • What role does FUNCTION play and what does it really mean?

Function means the essential job that a product is designed to do. A bit more widely, it is also the job that a user or buyer wants the product to do. What is important is that it is not just the materials contained. The materials are almost worthless. All of the value resides in the function. For a bottle, almost all of the investment and the human labor used to produce the bottle went into creating function. If you break a bottle, destroying its function, you destroy most of its value. If you save the broken glass in a dumpster for recycling, you save virtually nothing of value. All of the investment in energy, capital, construction and labor that went into making the original bottle, has got to be invested all over again to turn broken glass into a new bottle. The central value of function is a universal principle that applies to every product. See Definitions

  • How would you turn the equation around and save the function rather than the materials?

The case of the bottle is clear. All you have to do is refill the bottle. Not by sending it off to some alien cleaning and filling facility, because that approach is fraught with its own waste. The owner of the bottle needs to take responsibility for cleaning the bottle and bringing it to a facility which makes refilling with the original contents easy and convenient. This kind of facility tends not to exist anywhere, but we need to create them, so that the practice of smashing bottles can be brought to an end.

Note that we are not talking about deposit arrangements, because those typically destroy the chain of responsibility. We mean here that each person keeps her own container, washes it herself and refills it herself. It never leaves her control and is never turned over to a stranger for a deposit.

Essentially every other product can be subjected to a similar analysis that shows the way to reuse its function. Repair, rebuilding and remanufacturing are some of the methods that were heavily used in the past and need to be massively reintroduced. We complain about the way that cheap electronic goods are discarded in favor of new, cheap replacements. But we have purposely eliminated modular construction (which allows reassembling into new models) and repair has become prohibitive due to the lack of repair information and economic support. These are conscious decisions of planned obsolescence, and they can be reversed if we demand it.

  • Wouldn’t that kind of refilling station require a whole new business?

Yes it would, and that is the wonderful practicality of the Zero Waste approach. Creating a business that makes refilling readily available to the public is a business opportunity that solves an important problem which is now being artificially “solved” by far more wasteful methods. There is no need to convince politicians to institute new policies, or to change the way that garbage and recycling are being done. The solution is to start a commonsense business that is so efficient that it will take over as the common way of reusing bottles. Once the business is in place, there will be a need to change social policies so that it becomes the universal method of bottle reuse.

  • Is the Zero Waste approach totally new or have the recyclers adopted it?

Actually it was the recycling movement which first figured out the Zero Waste approach. In the mid-90’s, the Grass Roots Recycling Network (GRRN) wrote a paper revealing that they realized that recycling could never solve the problems of excess garbage creation. That paper showed that intervention had to move upstream, to the design phase. However, they did not know how to accomplish this in the field so they interpreted their insight as the need for just more recycling. Now we can see how to redesign products as the hoped for solution and this development is much more effective than recycling. The reason is simple – a properly designed product will avoid waste perpetually, each time a product is created.

Unfortunately the recyclers ask themselves what they can do with a discarded material. This is of no interest from a zero waste perspective.

  • Why then does recycling enjoy such wide popularity?

There are a number of reasons. Simple ones, include the fact that most people are not technically trained, are not able to think critically or to imagine new ways of approaching puzzling phenomena. There is also the general disintegration of the American educational system.

But more important, I believe, is that the recyclers have had a public relations success dumped in their laps. They get to compare recycling to the dumbest way that anyone could invent for dealing with excess goods, namely the garbage model. Compared to the garbage model, anything else has got to look good. Because the garbage model is so widely accepted, recycling appears to be a major improvement. Any proposal for any purpose will look great if you compare it to the worst possible alternative you can find. Normally, you will not be allowed to get away with that kind of comparison. Normally, you will be asked to also compare your proposal to the best possible alternative. But not in this case!

If recyclers routinely had to compare their approach to Zero Waste solutions, recycling would look like an inadequate, first-attempt response. But since the world at large, including the official world, never requires an incisive analysis of recycling, it continues to look better than dumps and incinerators and recyclers harp on this as the only basis of comparison.

Recycling also profits from the lack of any deep analysis of the alternatives in another way. As you surely know, there has been a longstanding effort to try to get individual buyers, users and trash discarders to step up to the plate and do what recyclers think they should. Whole reports and conferences turn on the question of what kind and what size and what color of recycling bins should be used. Should there be three kinds of bins for bottles, cans and paper? Should there be an undersink compost container that gets emptied out into the green bin? Is this all too confusing for the poor overloaded householder? What if we let him put everything to be recycled in a single bin (called single stream) and then pay some cheap labor to separate it out again? What a problem!

If all your time is spent agonizing over these non-productive questions, you will have no time left over for considering productive questions.

The Zero Waste approach suffers from no such theoretical confusion. It doesn’t require each and every member of society to master a new set of skills. All that is required of an individual user of some goods is to pass along his broken or exhausted item to the proper next person. Most often, that will be the reuse yard, which is a regular business, paid to repair or process and pass along your items to their proper next reincarnation, whatever that may be. Their particular procedure is known to them in advance, it was paid for when the item was sold, they will not refer to your item as junk or trash or garbage, no part of it will go into a dump (there won’t be any such thing except in nightmares, horror films and history lessons) and you will be asked for a background or a history or how the part stopped working. The history will follow the part thru its next usage, much like the chain of evidence follows a grab sample for chemical analysis or a piece of forensic evidence. This is no plan for abandonment of responsibility.

Redesigning for reuse is organized and responsible. There is no last minute scramble to deal with a flood of unknown broken up parts. The reuse pathway is built right into each item, not left to uninterested, underpaid, garbage workers. The proper next taker will be shown on the item’s label. The people planning and doing the reuse will be educated, technical people, paid for their knowledge. That is why you won’t need to become a high level decider – “let’s see, this is the second tuesday of the month and this junk has 67% glass so it goes into the blue bin. No, maybe it’s the red bin. I’ll look it up in the recycling instructions in the front of the phone book.”

  • Why do big corporations, including garbage companies, so forcefully support recycling?

For decades now, the world has been awash in excess money for capital investment, created in vast quantities by banks and governments thru debt and credit. Capital flows across the globe looking for investments. Solutions to social problems that depend on intelligent creation, usage or distribution of resources, even including food and water, are denigrated. Solving problems is the mantra but solutions that make new problems are preferred. Fixes applied to fixes applied to still more fixes are best, especially if each new fix is a technological one requiring investment, development, machinery and infrastructure. Wastefulness is not considered a negative but a result which is wholly to be embraced because it retains the need for still more fixes later on. Recycling resembles garbage management in that it amasses and mixes all manner of end-cycle resources into large lots which can be managed and manipulated with large equipment, providing an investment vehicle for capital. Reuse activities are more distributed. Even though reuse may mean investment in more rational manufacturing and processing, the equipment is widely distributed and is therefore not seen as a device for massive investment. The schools and institutes that will need to train graduate technicians do not yet anticipate a central role and so do not weigh in on the side of rational design. For this reason, Zero Waste is viewed with suspicion by government and investors while garbage management and recycling are supported.

For an example of the uselessness of applying fixes to former fixes to earlier fixes, there is no better example than cleanup, especially of chemical pollution including once-legal dumps.

We have all become familiar with the sight of moon-suited hazmat crews moving over dangerous fields of chemical contamination, supposedly cleaning it up. The success and ubiquity of this image is a signal of the enormous success the polluters and experts have had in roping us into this waste of labor that superficially appears to be necessary.

The great realization that these “experts” do not want us to come to is that nothing is being done to avoid creating new pollution that will then require new cleanup. All of this enormous effort is misplaced. Even though it is necessary to limit dangers that already threaten us, it is far more important to stop the continual creation of new dangers. But if we cure the disease, we will no longer need the doctors, and this is considered intolerable.

Remember this fact if you take nothing else away from reading here: CLEANING UP AFTER POLLUTION IS NOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL ENTERPRISE! It is only a profitless technofix that we are forced into by the people responsible for polluting practices. It is primarily for their benefit. They are paid extraordinarily well for the cleanup and they don’t want to lose their golden touch.

Some other examples of technofixes: too much crime? Build an expensive gated community to keep out the riff-raff. Is the air too dirty to breathe? Seal up your windows and buy an air freshening machine. Is the water too dirty to drink? Buy an expensive reverse osmosis unit for your sink or go to drinking expensive bottled water which is itself made in a wasteful process that further degrades the planet’s water systems. Running out of gasoline? Convert coal into fuel liquids (the SASOL process) in one of the dirtiest chemical processes you can find. Is the soil too bereft of nutrients to grow plants on? Build a Haber Process plant to chew thru natural gas to make nitrogen fertilizers. Don’t ever begin closing the agricultural nutrient cycle by returning every scrap of organic matter back to the soil. Don’t stop polluting water and air. Don’t change automotive designs. These simpler devices would not use up vast quantities of excess capital or create even more money for rich people.

Now we are presented with an exactly parallel example. The people who created the Great Depression of 2008, thru their greed and their accumulation of unearned and undeserved gigantic profits, are the same people who are being tapped to clean up the economic mess. Of course they will be sure to extend and deepen the problems, not cure them, insuring their continual profits. This is the way that the politicians and their friends always work. Why would pollution cleanup be any different?

The official website of the only non profit dealing with Zero Waste that adheres to a consistent philosophy based on stated principles.