Garbage – the Universal Utility

What price do we pay for making garbage disposal into the universal utility.

Everyone gets garbage service. Even homeless people who don’t get running water or electricity. But they are still able to throw out garbage.

Every once in a while, the horrible waste that garbage brings is brought home to us in a glaring manner. This is before trying to apply Zero Waste Theory or anything elaborate. Sometimes garbage collectors are sufficiently horrified at being asked to break up or throw away obviously valuable objects that that they collect and display them instead. Here is a library, made from discarded books.

In New York city a garbageman named Nelson Molina has assembled a museum of thousands of valuable, interesting and special objects which he captured from the garbage that he was picking up for 30 years. He took these objects from bags of garbage, so he probably left tons of other goodies in the bags without noticing them. Listen to his story on this radio interview. People are astounded that he has been able to assemble such a collection. But everyone misses the point!

The real point is that Molina is just one garbageman among hundreds of thousands of garbagemen around the United States, not to mention the global number. Now Molina gets help from a number of other garbagemen but we could probably project a hundred thousand times as many loci as this one, each one of which could assemble just as interesting a museum as Molina’s. All of that useful, interesting, repairable and often irreplaceable “trash” was never captured for a museum. It just went to a dump. What a loss! What a waste! The problem lies with the reactionary view of garbage in this world. Any person can take a valuable object and decree: “I want this to go into a dump no matter what it is and no matter who wants it!”. And the law will back them up, instead of intervening with some common sense. This is a catastrophic shame for our world. A world that worships waste.

Is any bulk garbage used beneficially? Definitely! People are not backward about making use of large quantities of anything. Here is a video about people around the world using various byproducts to make unexpected and salable products:

  1. Bagasse (leftover from processing sugar cane) at Yash Pakka company in India to make plates, utensils and boxes.
  2. Bottles in New Orleans at Glass Half Full to make sand.
  3. Flipflop sandals at Oceansong to make colorful animals in Nairobi Kenya.
  4. Coconut husks to make grilling briquets by Alhaji, an entrepreneur in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
  5. Mats from human hair to preferentially absorb oil from water (in spills) Now done around the world.
  6. Compostable plates from pineapple processing residues at Lifepack in Colombia.

and much more.

The question is: do these ventures really make a difference or are they just pulling industry’s chestnuts partly out of the fire, abetting an unseeing, uncaring, profit motivated industry to keep filling the world with discards? How should we think about this flood of byproduct reinventors theoretically? Are they Zero Waste actors or mere recyclers?

The first question to answer is how much of their raw material do these innovative companies use up? Are they doing okay for themselves, while the main part of the waste byproduct they use is actually produced in vastly greater quantities than they can deal with? If so, they are not solutions to the problems they so eagerly and vigorously address themselves to. They are like the carefully placed mole on a beautiful face. Pretty but irrelevant. Or do they have the potential to use up all the available byproduct and maybe even seek out more?

Then there is the question of whether the byproduct they use up is used in an optimum manner or are they just making use of a waste product in a wasteful world which is available because real Zero Waste reuse is not available. The case of turning bottles into sand should come in for scrutiny for this question. Turning sand into glass bottles at considerable expense, factory time and fuel consumption to be used once and then turned back into cheap sand? Clearly just a stop-gap measure which works because bottles are treated so cavalierly by bottlers. In a rational world, those bottles would not exist as a discarded byproduct but would be refilled with their contents.

More fundamental is the garbage delusion. “The problem is this thing I hold in my hand, that I see with my eyes, that I need to get rid of!” That is a delusion! The real problem is with the the factory that produced a poorly designed product intended to be used once and then discarded. Mountains of valuable resources (heat, energy, clean water and air, metals, wood, plastic etc.) went into making that product TO BE USED ONLY ONCE! If the consumer now finds a way to get rid of that object in a low grade manner without honoring the resource consumption it represents, he is just abetting the wasteful designs of the manufacturer and he is adding to the exhaustion of its contained resources, including fostering climate change. What he needs to do is to demand that the original product be designed to be used twice, ten, many times in the highest functional mode possible.

One of the signals that the garbage delusion is active is hearing “otherwise it would end up in a landfill”. Reuse at the level of dump materials is far too low grade to count as Zero Waste reuse.

Still, it’s an inspiring video about some very innovative people and their fairly successful projects.