Climate Impact Contest at MIT

Proposal submitted to the MIT Climate Colabs contest for 2011


I have been working in the field of Zero Waste for thirty years. I wrote a book called Getting To Zero Waste on the subject, ran a company that found new uses for all the chemicals we could find and now run a large website at

I invented the term Zero Waste by being the first person to use the term publicly when I named my company Zero Waste Systems Inc. 1

I define Zero Waste to be the new, conservative design of any and all of society’s and industry’s products and processes with a new principle in mind. Invent and apply new designs which completely eliminate one central notion that has heretofore been taken for granted; namely, that during or at the end of a usage cycle (a lifetime) the product or intermediate materials or other resources will simply be discarded. In short, redesign products and processes so that discard will never happen.

This principle is emphasized because it is clear that discard is the critical step which creates waste or garbage. When products especially are discarded, simply because that is what they are designed for from the start, then they must be remanufactured for the next cycle of production-sale-usage-discard over and over. Each cycle wastes huge amount of resources of every description, including, in particular, energy.

In existing commerce, the discard of products is expected to lead to some form of destruction, whether by burial in a dump, incineration or smashing for low level capture of insignificant materials, i.e. recycling. The prevailing theory of marketing claims that by designing for early obsolescence and discard, more products will be purchased thus keeping up profits for the manufacturer. This theory is a major driver of the wasteful design. A consequential theory of economics has been created which supports the destruction and constant remanufacturing of products as being a form of valuable commercial effort, even going so far as to add the costs of destruction to the Gross Domestic Product.

The result is the creation of a system of Garbage Creation and a set of assumptions accepted by the public which is served by an extremely profitable and politically well connected industry for the destruction of goods.

The struggle to apply redesign to society’s products, rather than inconsequential fiddling with symptoms, is made doubly difficult by the low profile adopted by the garbage industry, which hardly registers on most environmentalists’ list of bad guys. The public relies on garbage service for its lazy embrace of wasteful overconsumption and apparently cannot conceive of a world without garbage collection and destruction. To salve its conscience, it has embraced a thoroughly inadequate form of greenwashing called recycling, but the corporate underpinning of this torrent of waste remains hardly noticed. The results of this sub rosa manipulation by the quite powerful garbage industry can be pernicious indeed. One can see that logically, if there is no environmentally attractive alternative to garbage creation and destruction, if dumps are considered to be natural and necessary, then garbage collection is a public need and there needs to be “someplace to throw it”. Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court took this logic to its inescapable conclusion and decreed that the garbage companies are public utilities, dumpsites are public services and their siting cannot be opposed by any community. They went even further and exempted dumpsites from zoning regulations. This kind of logic is not twisted but inescapable, given reigning public attitudes, and will surely be extended to other states. The only way to turn it on its head is to provide an alternative way to think about the design, production, usage and re-usage of all goods so that no garbage is produced. That is the goal of Zero Waste analysis and the instant proposal is one designed to build a solid foundation for applying Zero Waste solutions to this pressing social problem.

It is the first purpose of the discussion to show that the named assumptions are mistaken and that, once the assumptions are abandoned and replaced by assumptions based on planetary conservation, the actual design of products to avoid discard is straightforward and entirely reasonable.

The actual proposal itself is one that I have been urging for many years. I propose that there be created, in this country, perhaps within the Dept. of Energy, a research directorate having as its goal the support of research into the new design of social, commercial and industrial products and processes so that products will be perpetually reused and processes will not generate wastes. The ultimate social success of such a program would be to eliminate the popular notion that garbage is natural and unavoidable and its physical payout would be the conservation of planetary resources, including energy and thus the atmosphere. This is where the proposal leads to, and ties in with climate change.

Just as a large scale investment in solar energy by any country can provide a new, thriving industry for the 21st century, in like manner, the design and installation of perpetually reusable products, to replace the wasteful designs of the 20th century, could lead to an entirely new industry that will revitalize whichever economy is the first to embrace it.


There exists a set of assumptions which appear to be so widespread that they can be called global. At the same time, they seem to vary somewhat in different societies and so have cultural varieties, thus lending them some national or cultural aspects.

It is well known that cultural assumptions, by enjoying constant reinforcement among the different persons in a culture, are deeply entrenched and difficult to challenge. Nevertheless, it is my contention that we as a species, with dramatic impacts on our planet, have come to the point where many convenient, comforting and established assumptions must be challenged if we are not to proceed straight to the destruction of our atmosphere, our resource base or our very species’ existence. This has even become a commonplace, and may be on its way to becoming a cultural assumption itself, especially in the West. (2) Nevertheless, I will focus on a few assumptions which are never mentioned in this new context, are clung to for dear life, which control the unnecessary squandering of resources that our society is known for and — despite the preceding — are wrong.

It is only because of the universality of these assumptions that I must present this long lead-in. Otherwise my proposal would be thought to have no foundation and would be rejected outright.

These four assumptions have taken on the aura of received wisdom:

  1. There has always been garbage and there always will be.
  2. Garbage is unavoidable.
  3. Nature creates no waste.
  4. Nature provides the best model for us to use in reducing waste.


There are two subsidiary assumptions that are worth noting. The first was current for part of the nineteenth century during the rise of the industrial revolution and through the first half of the twentieth century. It was widely assumed that nature was not only the best model, it was the only applicable model. Many sources wrote as though “carrying capacity”, or the ability of nature to absorb human pollution, was a critical limit of the extent to which industrial wastes could be discarded into nature. No other mode of waste removal was conceivable to this group. There are still adherents today though much fewer in number. The nuclear industry might be said to use this approach.

The second is that a peculiar method of reuse is adequate and desirable of universal application. This method has come to be known as “recycling” and it contemplates free discard, the creation of unwanted garbage followed by end-of-pipe treatment (often called heating and treating or trashing and smashing) to extract the bare materials of purposely smashed products.

I am addressing cultural assumptions here and yet I am proposing to members of that very same culture that these assumptions – their assumptions – are wrong. Some of these members will serve as judges. Does this put me in an untenable position? (3)

In light of this being a proposal rather than a long article, I am going to deal summarily with the dispatch of these six assumptions.

1. There has always been garbage and always will be, and; 2. Garbage is natural.

Wolves and grasshoppers do not make garbage as we know it. They are embedded within natural cycles which they can rely on for the natural products they need and discard. Surely there must have been an early time when humans were the same. No more! Garbage is an artifact of a late society with industrial aspirations. Even early metals would corrode in time though ceramics and glass from ancient times are still with us. Nevertheless, the relevant concept of garbage is hardly historically constant but is a recent innovation.

Some people like to put a technical twist on the claim by invoking the Second Law of Thermodynamics which puts limits on the efficiency of energy conversions, sets up notions of entropy and suggests that there will always be waste. The fact is that this notion is inapplicable to us on Earth since we are bathed in radiant energy from the sun and are therefore nothing like the closed system needed for this analysis. If we were a closed system, nature itself would have no way to pursue her extended cycles of synthesis and breakdown and we would be a kilometer deep in bones, cellulose and chitin.

The claim that garbage must be in our future is self-serving and lazy having no scientific evidence to support it. It means that the claimant has not thought the subject through. A quote from Bruce Bueno de Mesquita comes to mind:When someone tells you that something is impossible, say to that person, you are confusing impossibility with your not knowing how to get it done.” (4)

3. Nature creates no waste.

This claim is used as a setup for the assumption that follows it. In fact, Nature is extremely prodigal with its waste production. A dead corpse is of no use qua creature to any other natural creature. That corpse will provide no high level reuse to any plant or animal. Its arms, legs, antennae, tail or wings are now entirely useless as parts. It has become a waste product and must now be broken down to the most basic of molecular forms. It can be eaten, thus salvaging some of its molecular assemblages such as protein or DNA but then the eater will undoubtedly be unable to make much use of those large molecules and will further digest them to simple acids and salts. Its natural fate is to lose all of its exquisitely wrung molecular and functional complexity and become water, carbon dioxide, ammonia and other basic chemicals. Plants fare better as food in providing oils, vitamins and other higher level molecules but only in the rare case when they are eaten. Most plant matter is broken down to basic, inorganic molecules. Where the confusion arises, is that Nature then provides innumerable pathways to build up those inorganic chemicals back to high level creatures. It does this by making use of the abundant radiation from the sun. Microbes, fungi, amoeba and others start all over again. But the process itself is wasteful in the extreme, compared to the reuse of higher level functional parts, including complex molecules.

4. Nature provides the best model for reducing waste.

This concept received a boost from a book by Benyus a decade ago called Biomimicry. She showed that Nature had anticipated many products and tools (such as adhesives) and did them better than man. This does not however lead to the logical conclusion that nature does everything better than we can in the short term.

Like it or not, much of industrial production consists of making things that have no parallel in nature. They are too simple. Consider plastics, solvents, medicines and most chemicals. These consist of one or a very small number of different molecules. We need to have them that way to be useful. An electronic chip is another low entropy, very simple device. We control every one of its features and it has a relatively small number of states, compared to, let’s say, a caterpillar. As we assemble plastics and microchips into a “complex” device the number of states remains small. Our most complex assemblages are analyzable and their possible states understood and controllable. We can  however design in extra states to add new features, such as modes of reuse.

When a solar panel fails, nature would leave it in the sun, rain and oxygen for a few years while tiny, specialized solar panel dismantlers nibbled on it. As it was reduced to dust, other tiny machines might separate the silicon from the indium or gallium and digest the different components into cell bodies. Then larger silicon eating machines would ingest the small cells and begin to reassemble larger solar panels again.That is nature’s way in our energy rich world.

The industrial way is to reconnect the broken wire and start to use the repaired panel again. Nature has little to teach us about reducing waste because the methods of nature are wastefulness personified but with lots of helpers well supplied with solar energy.

The last assumption we need to deal with is the discard based method of recycling. This paradigm has been extraordinarily successful worldwide, primarily because those groups that the most to profit from discard have pushed it unmercifully while the general public, hoping to shift responsibility for its unwanted excesses, has leapt to adopt a theory that holds out hope of avoided disposal. Alas, nothing which avoids responsibility can succeed and recycling is in all respects a failure.

The US government many years ago published a deceptively framed mantra that has been widely adopted. It was initially Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. To this, some workers who do not understand the methods of Zero Waste, have added Rot, to stand for compost. But no formulation makes any sense in the absence of the one, overriding Re- word – take Responsibility. It is responsibility which makes all the rest work since in the absence of responsibility, every action becomes a form of discard.

In the field, the government, in its support of actual efforts, turns this mantra on its head and deveins it like a crawdad. In practice, the mantra is interpreted as Discard, Recycle, Dispose and nothing else. Instead of reduce, go shopping. Instead of reuse, design and manufacture for a single use and a short life.

How are these unfortunate circumstances to be improved through the application of the concept of responsibility inherent in Zero Waste theory? In its application, the idea is “you broke it, you own it”. If I used a Ford Taurus for ten years and it is falling apart, that was the “broke” part. Now I own it and there is no garbage can, no dumpster and no salvage yard to hand it over to. I have responsibility for it. But how could that possibly work in practice?

Obviously no individual car owner will have the wherewithal to dismantle, repair, refurbish or whatever is needed for a large, complex machine like an automobile. Not even a computer can be understood in that detail by more than a tiny fraction of owners. So there must be an industry devoted to assisting with the next life of every commercial item. Is this feasible? Absolutely! We already have a huge establishment for destruction, burying and even recycling of every existing item. We have a gigantic establishment of manufacturers, engineers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers to move the goods out into the hands of the public. Let us think of how to redesign that establishment in new ways to incorporate retrieval of goods as well as distribution.

As may have become obvious by now, the change that is contemplated is NOT an add on to the current design for waste. The change MUST begin with a change in design so that no product or process is expected to simply add to the pile of discards. No product will designed to be recycled if that word is used to mean smashing and capturing mere materials. Instead, all the parts of every product will be designed to be reusable as the original part. Let us look at a fender on that Taurus. The garbage view is to throw it into a dump or to take note that it is combustible piece and incinerate it or to crush it in a press together with copper, steel glass and more. The recycler wants to rip it off the vehicle (breaking it into pieces is acceptable), grind it up in a plastics grinder and convert it to plastic pellets which may be extruded into low grade new parts, typically pallets or park benches. The recycler does not know what kind of plastic it is made of except for an entirely inadequate recycling symbol showing merely 7 kinds. The pellets will be mixed with other, incompatible pellets and the extrusion will try to force the different plastics to cohere; a hopeless quest.

The Zero Waste approach is entirely different. The fender will be labeled with an RFID chip and a bar code that will contain a great deal of information, all digitally readable. Some of the information will be this: the name of the part, its model number, its serial number, the place of its manufacture, the company that manufactured it, the date of manufacture, its intended use, any applicable size, blueprint or design parameters, the type of plastic, the filler, the UV protection, the pigments and the quantities of each, the melt index, the crystal index and etc.

Furthermore, the part will have been designed in a modular manner. It will not have a totally unique profile or shape but will have the same shape as hundreds of other similar parts on other models of automobiles (and perhaps MRI machines and industrial computer printers). It will not be fastened to the frame or engine using today’s proprietary fasteners today purposely located in inaccessible places and requiring proprietary tools for removal. Instead, the fastening will be done with standard fasteners, easily accessible and easily removed without injuring the part.

As must be quite clear by now, the automobile will be taken from the user by a dedicated Reuse Center that knows exactly how to dismantle and reuse all the parts in their largest functional uses. A perfectly usable engine will not be dismantled or crushed or melted just because the vehicle is designed for destruction. This brings up the question of how the Reuse Center will know the quality of the engine. Very simple! Remember that the first “R” is Responsibility. The user will not simply hand over an undifferentiated vehicle to the Reuse Center, glad to be rid of any further responsibility. This will be universally understood to be anathema. Instead the former user will responsibly describe the vehicle in some detail to its new owner in the same way that a chemical sample or forensic evidence must be conveyed with a full chain of custody report. There must never be any transmission of any unwanted product which destroys or ignores its history and leaves it as an unknown, the way that a garbage can works today.

The detailed description of how a fender will be managed will be true for every part of that automobile. Every part will be reused in its highest functional application. The Reuse Center will be staffed with highly trained engineers and technicians, not with low level garbagemen. Thus taking responsibility for reuse will lead ineluctably to the creation of a new cadre of skilled, technical workers.

There will undoubtedly be problems with this happy description. Engines will wear out or break and fenders will be smashed. What happens when parts can no longer be used in high functional ways?

This eventuality will also be designed for at the time of manufacture. We already know about some methods for extending the repairable lives of engines. For example, there are replaceable cylinder sleeves which make it much easier to reuse a worn out engine. More such devices will be developed and designed in. A fender can have built in preferred fracture lines that allow parts of broken fenders to be reconnected in predictable ways. None of this would cause any difficulty to the design capabilities of modern industrial manufacturing. What is missing is the social philosophy and the will.

Taking this all further, what happens when the fender is badly smashed and its pieces have no conceivable use? That query has been addressed above. Keep in mind the earlier reference to RFID chips and barcodes. It may become necessary to grind up the part and turn it into plastic pellets for further extrusion. However, this process will not resemble the higgledy-piggledy approach that recyclers use. The exact alloy composition of every plastic or metal part is known from its RFID, even though there may be 500,000 combinations of ingredients. The alloys will be standardized for maximum compatibility across parts and models. There will be no foolish, forced attempts to mix polystyrene with polyethylene, even though they refuse to stick together. Responsibility extends to the reuse process at every level.

Note that even grinding the plastic maintains a high function since molecular uniqueness is maintained, unlike degrading the molecules by burning or even biodegradation.

There are a number of other, quite different products that are presented on my Zero Waste Institute website. Rather than prolong this description further, I will merely present two URL’s where there are discussions of better ways of installing fence posts (and all other posts) and a better way of assembling concrete floors. These are just presented as typical projects, similar to the example of a fender above. There are potentially thousands of these new designs that can be applied to products we are familiar with. You can find more under Projects on that same website. It turns out that products are so poorly designed today that finding many new and better designs is not hard even for laymen.

By now, I hope the reader has appreciated this underlying truth about the redesigns being discussed. Note well, that at no time have I proposed simple and minor tweaks to existing products embedded in a world of discard. Instead, I have pointed out system wide changes that will support new product designs. Every product is created within a theory of design. Up to now, the universal theory has made use of discard and destruction after a short life. There is no way to simply “try to do better” and put high level reuse in place in the contemporary system of design, distribution and usage. Unless an entire system of social usage is changed, there is no possibility of serious reuse and there will be no serious impact on climate change.


In order to make it clear why the proposed systemwide changes to production and consumption will have a major effect on the use of energy, the emission of carbon dioxide and the impact on climate, we must understand where wasting takes place in our industrial system.

It has been estimated in a study by Boulder Recycling that industry produces 71 times more garbage than households. This number is accepted in the field and I will accept it here.

Manufacturing is not a matter of simply throwing together a few existing parts and voila, a product. Instead, industrial production has many energy intensive features that must all be lined up to operate. Every one of these makes various uses of manpower, planning, finance, securing raw materials, transportation, building construction, design and building of machinery, research, accounting, marketing, administration and more.

Think of the one-time expenses of lining up finance and building construction. Each of them relies on a cadre of workers, some highly paid, others not so much, who need to work, eat, educate their children, drive cars etc. while they are completing their jobs. Before the bare building even comes into existence, a substantial amount of energy is expended just in maintaining the lives of these myriad contributors. Even if this outlay occurs only once, it must be accounted for and divided up among all of the products that will ever be produced in that building. And this is just for starters.

Once the machinery is in place and the workers hired, trained and assigned, think of how many persons will be contributing to the creation of the products. Whether those persons are in China or Ohio, they require inputs of food, clothing, education and everything else that people need and use to survive and thrive. Bringing in the raw materials involves agriculture or mining and then smelting or chopping or special processing and lots of transportation. It is not sufficient to just put a price on some perceived raw material and assume that sums up everything that must be accounted for. That raw material has some amount of energy – meaning climate impact – in every ton. Ditto with every worker, every marketer, every administrator, every worker in product quality and testing labs all of whom are consumers of resources. Operating machinery, heating and cooling all take energy. Then the products’ distribution implies a concomitant embedding of climate impact as it moves through the supply chain. Packaging is secured, attached and discarded amid a further need for transportation.

Now imagine that the product is used up, smashed, and some small amount of glass, copper, steel or plastic is separated out for recycling. Of what significance is this? That climate train has left the station. We are talking typically about an utterly insignificant portion of the embedded climate impact. Recycling has virtually no effect on total climate impact. But the unnecessary remanufacturing of products that, for narrow economic reasons, have been designed to fall apart after a short life and to be unreusable in any reasonable way – now that is a crime against the planet.

This is why I have strongly urged that the critical step of discard is so important. Not because of what happens at the very moment of discard but because of what it implies in the unnecessary expenditure of all those climate destroying inputs when a product, that already has high function built into it at such cost, is lost and must be recreated. It makes hardly any difference at all what happens to a product following its discard. All of the climate impact has already been tallied up and charged off. Anything that can be done to avoid debiting a new assault on the planet that is not absolutely necessary, must be done. The key is to keep on using the highest function of every manufactured part, because it is in creating and assembling and cooking up complexity – high function – that the greatest impact is incurred against the atmosphere and the planet.


Now that we are clear where the climate impact is taking place, it is almost anticlimactic to ask what we can do about it. There are a few obvious points of intervention. Some will require that public attitudes be changed, and that is the subject of advertising campaigns, reeducation and enforced changes in the way that systems work. Some could depend on bans, such as for disposal of this or that. Some could work with industry to redesign systems. And all of these have their place.

The locus of most effective intervention that appears to me to be most achievable at this time is to perform the research that is needed to know exactly how to proceed toward the larger goal. While I have put forward a number of approaches to redesign, the new designs have to come out of industry and industry is notably conservative when it comes to making any changes in its products and its profit potential. Therefore I am proposing the creation of a Zero Waste Design Research Center.

I do not know how such a center would specifically be funded or staffed. There is precedent in the Solar Energy Research Center that was established with a funding of $200 MM pa in the nineteen sixties. In today’s world it would be more likely to be funded by private industrial contributions but that is not a part of my proposal.

I would expect the center to work with industries, study product design and propose seminal changes that would result in widescale reuse of robustly designed products. I would also look toward research into changes that could be made in industrial processes for manufacturing that would eliminate discard and waste. Since I once worked actively in that field, with respect to the discard or reuse of chemicals by industry, I know that there is great scope for improvement.

One of the products of such a center would be making a start in changing public and industrial attitudes away from a reliance on obsolescence to create profit. New methods must be found to make profit that does not rely on insatiable wasting.

The center might not even be a geographically limited center but might be an organizing principle for encouraging and funding this same kind of research in distributed university departments. It could be a political department or agency. It could have global roots in shared research, since all countries need to redesign wasteful products.

In short, many details remain to be determined, but my basic proposal stands as the creation of a central expediting focus for causing this research to be accepted, understood and welcomed by the public, leading then to the widespread adoption of Zero Waste principles of production.

1See Wikipedia, entry for Zero Waste

2See the various popular writings of Derrick Jensen

3What constitutes a valid claim for a general assumption? Usually an applicability in the nineties percent should be adequate. In this case, these assumptions may have dispersion in the 97th or 98th percentile or higher.

4See his TED presentation

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