ZW White Paper No. 1


Yes, it may strike you as an excessive claim but it’s true. With a few exceptions, waste is the concept that pulls together virtually the entire environmental movement, with all of its focus on species, oceans, atmosphere, toxicity, justice, pollution etc. Even climate change.

The reason is simple. The destruction of the earth, the planet and everything on, in or around it arises because we suffer from an economic system, commonly called capitalism though I would prefer it to be called “exploitationism”, that takes as its token, the exploitation, the gathering in, the theft if you will, of every possible resource, to be ground up, turned into quick profit and then the excesses strewn everywhere, anywhere, with no concern for the consequences.

It is the strewing of the no longer wanted excesses which constitute what we call waste, or garbage. The resources were not made by the thief or the manufacturer or the businessman. For the most part, they are part of the commons. They belong to all of us and to no one, which is why the businessperson has to steal them. By rights, they have no rights to these resources. But they garner to their organizations the means of power so that they can bludgeon anyone who challenges their wanton usage. They buy the politicians, they bend the laws to their purposes, they hire policemen and mercenaries and they own the armor; the guns and tanks.

There is more than naked power to lubricate the so-called economic progress. There is a fully fledged theory that blinds the opposition until it has no idea if there really is a commons to be protected at all. Theories of free enterprise, of global trade, of free non-union employment, the Chicago school, intricate theories of money and of economic action that are too arcane to be understood, much less challenged. Nobel prizes in economics scream at common people that their petty concerns could not possibly be true, or effective. Lobbying outfits for sale to anyone with the price, which means whoever is most effectively stealing resources and profiting thereby, continue the corruption of the political system into the service of the resources expropriators.

What are some of these resources that are grabbed so cavalierly? We know their names well. Clean air, water and soil were not made by any man, but the theory of private ownership has been allowing them to be exploited for private profit for many centuries. Species diversity is a huge resource. A major one is human labor and intelligence. Humans are created in vast excess, they are raised by hopeful, loving parents and nominally educated by society, then used for profit. There is such an excess of human bodies and minds that the excess is discarded, disrespected, ignored. If huge swathes of humanity are forbidden by the economic system to ever know what it means to have adequate food and housing or to know an education, it makes no difference to the economy. They are dispensable. If other communities must live among pollution from previous exploitation and waste, that is not even on the public conscience, except among those being exploited. Food, another resource, is created in vast quantities but not evenly distributed. Food has to be grown, that’s true, but using resources that no one could even dream of creating. Food is consumed and turned into waste products that are collected but in a way that contaminates the outputs so badly that they cannot even go back to the soil if that is attempted. Sink based garbage disposal units are exalted under the banner of convenience, while resource conservation and the commons are pooh poohed as irrelevant. All the resources that become garbage are destroyed as inexorably as possible. Not only are resources stolen, but the economic system makes no attempt to restore those original resources, by closing loops, unless, by some kind of accident, it is possible to make still more profit by closing a loop.

While we focus on these obvious resources, there are thousands more that are all going to become scarce. Iron, cobalt, gallium, indium, vanadium and tungsten are a few of the metals. There are thousands of minerals, such as soda ash, diatomaceous earth, ilmenite (a source of titanium), borates, bauxite, even diamonds. Wars are raging in the Congo over coltan, a mineral of columbium and tantalum. Fresh water is badly endangered. For all of these resources 99.9% of effort is devoted to finding new sources to take from the earth. For all its obviousness, any scheme to close loops, to keep resources circulating in closed loops is derided as visionary or impossible.

The one environmental movement that has captured worldwide attention is climate change. Yet what more is this than the wanton creation of unwanted, unusable carbon dioxide waste? Climate change, and the pressure to change over to renewable energy sources is no more than a Zero Waste campaign to eliminate an open resource loop if it can’t be closed, and to replace it with new but obvious closed loops.

It should be clear that without the ability to wantonly discard garbage, the system would load itself up so heavily that the gears would be unable to turn. As the entire planetary surface is exploited and discarded, the burden would be insupportable. Biology faces the same problem but handles it much more intelligently. What if all the carapaces and chitin of dead insects never went anywhere? By now our planet would probably be buried under a hundred feet of chitin (assuming insects could still live). Or if cellulose went nowhere, what would we do. Life would become impossible. Yet the human economy of exploitationism is more brutally primitive. The mistakes of a fifty thousand years still hang around to weigh us down, and the mistakes of the last few hundred years of the industrial economy are contaminating the entire planet. In addition, since loops are never closed on purpose (nature still distills dirty water into rain unbidden; bacteria attack organic matter without being asked) the basic resources are disappearing. The environmental movement mounts a desperate, rearguard action to preserve some of the more endangered resources such as biodiversity and clean water and air, but for the most part, the economic juggernaut of exploitationism rides on, grinding all conservative impulses into the dust.

Now comes Zero Waste onto the stage of history. Zero Waste theory rejects the wanton grinding and spitting out of resources but in a new way. Unlike previous theories (recycling) Zero Waste is not content to put a mere patch on a wasteful economy. Zero Waste strives to redesign the very essence of much of the theory of exploitationism. Not in order to eliminate the capital intensive exploitation of resources entirely, but to slow it down, to save it, to build a long term theory that will not destroy itself by destroying its own resource base but will just get rid of the one, egregiously self-destructive portion of the economic cycle, the race to discard. Is discard and wasting the only way that our galloping economy can continue. I don’t think so. I think that the vibrancy and the creativity of the economy can be preserved, even if resource loops are closed. Like FDR, who saved capitalism from its own excesses following the crash of 1929, Zero Waste holds out the hope of saving capitalism – exploitationism – from drowning in its own contradictions.

Does this mean that Zero Waste can completely eliminate all wasting from an exploitative economy and from rampaging population growth. I wouldn’t claim that. We cannot possibly live on earth with no footprint at all. What Zero Waste can do is to eliminate all waste from the usage loops where it can be applied.  Then we can work to widen the applications of Zero Waste to more and more usage loops. At the same time as Zero Waste designs are reducing the impact of each person’s footprint on earth, we need to be reducing the total human load, the total number of people banging shoulders, to where the remnant impact that we have on the planet is bearable by the planet as part of its natural cycles.  Without Zero Waste designs, there is no population which the planet can support sustainably, since all people using any industrial processes under the wasteful theory of pollution regulations, are still destroying parts of the earth in ways that  build and build without any way to mitigate them. But with Zero Waste designs, the most difficult to sustain processes can be entirely closed, thus allowing a reasonable population to survive sustainably. This is the promise of Zero Waste for our planet.