Forcing you to create waste

Can you turn the juggernaut of waste behaviors around in your own life and make a difference?

Lots of people like to ask this question. Many people have contacted me telling me they make almost no garbage at all. Frequently they have to fight with their city that just assumes everyone needs an 80 gallon garbage can emptied every week and makes garbage pickup mandatory, whether you want it or not!  Oakland California is particularly terrible in this regard, even though, can you believe the delicious irony, they actually have a Zero Waste resolution claiming that waste elimination is their goal. The forced wasting syndrome is widely distributed. Some new houses and many hotels have a shower control that forces you to use full volume control to get any hot water.

My simple answer to the question is that Zero Waste is the highest, most effective approach to changing our society’s wasting behaviors and it is a design principle, not a personal reuse principle. If you have no control over the design of the systems and products you use and are subjected to, then you cannot make the needed changes by just pushing hard personally. The best use of your efforts is to make systemic changes in the ways that products and production and distribution is designed. This may sound like all the really important changes have to be grand political and industrial changes but that is not the case at all. There are many design changes that an individual can make, that will then reverberate through the methods that many other people use to reduce their own waste. For example, you could design a new product that is so much better than anything now being sold, that it blows away the standard wasteful competition. Look at some of the ideas I offer in the Products section of this website. And you could get your own city to pass a Zero Waste resolution urging your county or state to make some larger changes that need to be implemented at that level (but don’t let them get away with calling discard-through-recycling a ZW strategy). Get a local university to institute a research program into making design changes. When you can’t get to the end result in a single step, break it up into many steps and work on those.

The main lesson I am trying to impart is that you do not have to beat yourself up because you can’t reduce your own wasting to zero. We live in a society that has enshrined wasting and garbage in a thousand more ways than you can imagine. All of the non-wasting behaviors that are so attractive to you are either prohibited or made well nigh impossible to apply. That garbage dump is dangled in front of you and you are driven into it by every law and assumption that a wasteful government and an unimaginative public can dream up. If you find that you can hardly get through a day without garbage, it isn’t your fault. Do what you can of course, but you are being coerced into garbage creation and you can use up all your energy fighting “them” while hardly getting anywhere.

“Could I fool myself forever
That a habit is a truth … “
Song by Paul Brady, You’re The One

The film No Impact Man is a perfect example. As I point out in my review in the Bibliography section, he alters perhaps 5% of his personal wasting behavior, yet he gets untold publicity and kudos from mainstream media. One could cynically imagine that they are happy to boost anyone who makes an ineffective thrashing that changes nothing, just in order to thwart real change, and there are probably some that fall into that category. But I rather think that the main reason for his enormous publicity is that the public, and the media, don’t have a clue what is effective and what is not. The low grade recycling ethic has so pervaded the environmental movement that saving a little bit of energy or buying organic now masquerade as environmental triumphs. The ways in which that organic food is produced may be just as energy wasting as conventional agriculture (I’m not saying that it is) but if there are no pesticides on the food, that is as far as anyone wants to look. Cutting off the electricity and using candles is celebrated while no one asks the questions of how electricity is generated so that people can still enjoy this modern miracle without creating huge outputs of waste carbon dioxide or fly ash or radionuclides. There are ways to create electricity in amazingly better ways than by burning coal or uranium but living with candles gets the huge press. This is changing now for nuclear power due to the ongoing Fukushima¬† disaster but Washington is hand in glove with the oil industry. Fortunately the Chinese are determined to become the world’s powerhouse for solar cell manufacturing.

So, my advice is to jettison all those comforting articles and books about the Ways That You Can Save The Earth by saving string, and go out and find some better designs. Then start a company or a website and make sure people hear about them.

Lately Gernot Wagner from the Environmental Defense Fund echoed exactly this point in the New York Times. Read his article.

There is a website with an excellent and non-trivial description of how to save energy in your own house. His basic assumption seems to be that you inhabit a standard issue, wasteful American house design and can do nothing about that. But granted that drawback, his descriptions are incisive and scientifically based. They account for a very small amount of energy savings compared to a radical redesign of living arrangements but they do put a small amount of control into your hands. Read the website

Paul Palmer

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