Waste (or wastes) are unwanted or unusable materials. Why should we reduce waste? Why should I reduce waste? Is it even possible to reduce waste? It is important to understand some numbers and thoughts on how to go about these questions.
There is overwhelming gracefulness in living without waste
Movements of zero waste and minimalism in the last two to three years have grown rapidly and are becoming as popular as ever. Mostly it is due to highly alarming news about global warming and misuse of plastic. In essence, the idea in both movements is to consume fewer resources to create less waste and ease the strain we put on the environment and ourselves. It is estimated that already now we need 1,7 planets of the earth to sustain the way we live.
Many people, are joining the movement and adapt their behavior according to the principles of zero waste and minimalism. Some go to the extreme and stay clear of household waste, some approach it more gradually.
The question is whether applying the principles of zero waste and minimalism is a sustainable and feasible way of living – is the idea of consuming less and creating as less waste as possible sound in general terms and does not conflict with the quality of personal life and the way future generations will live?
The answer is in the balance. Finding the comfort level needed for you and understanding the environmental implications if waste is not controlled.
The Law of Nature
First, there is general agreement among involved groups (supporters and critics) that living without waste is not possible. Even by breathing the air we are creating waste, and our bodies do process food and do not absorb 100% of it.
In more general terms the universal law of nature – the second law of thermodynamics states that a closed system’s entropy (degradation/chaos) is flowing in one direction and is always increasing. Like hot tea gives away the heat but never can heat oneself back without an external source of energy. In other words, someday there will be a dark, cold and quiet universe. Sounds depressing but thankfully the time for this is so far in future that it is inconceivable for the human mind to comprehend.
Thus, we can work create and make things happen in whatever domain we have chosen, without too much worry. But it does make one point clear – without the input of energy things will not improve.
Second, intuitively people tend to agree that resource conservation and waste reduction is good, in both aspects – personal and environmental. Waste poses a threat to personal health and degrades the environment. If we chop off all the forests we will not have any wood available. Fortunately, we have seeds and can replant the trees. (Taking into account that we can hold our breath for a few decades as the threes are the lungs of the planet.)
But what about metals and fossil fuels that are extracted from the earth to feed our industry and improve the quality of lives with cell phones, cars, planes, etc.? If we deplete these resources from the earth and sooner or later this will happen, then our lives will change. The earth has a finite amount of resources. Scientists and entrepreneurs are building space ships to go to the moon and Mars for this reason alone and sooner or later there will be a sound business case for that.
For those who will stay here though, there is no escape from the waste problem. It is estimated that it is 5-10 times cheaper to manage the waste now in an environmentally sound manner than clean it up in the future years.
Third, there is no denial that worldwide waste is growing and the numbers that highlight the issue are becoming very alarming.
So what are the mains sources of waste in the world? There is no clear answer for that, only approximate data, as there are obvious difficulties to count and collect precise data.
United Nations Environment Program report shows approximate data on major waste streams in the world:
- Construction and demolition – 36%
- Commercial and industrial – 32%
- Municipality solid waste – 24%
- Water supply and land remediation – 5%
- Energy production – 3%
*data exclude agriculturally and forestry and mining and quarrying wastes (as it is believed that these wastes are reciprocal and nature can cope with it.)
Data indicates that the total magnitude of “urban” (municipal, commercial and industrial including construction and demolition) waste is around 7-10 billion tons (2014) per annum. It is around 3 million Boeing 747 jets. Municipal solid waste (the waste we are most accustomed to) generates 2 billion tons of waste per annum or around 5 times less.
Data of Municipal solid waste (MSW) are more precise and available, the data differ by country and is highly correlated to income level.
Organic materials comprise a greater percentage of MSW arising. In high-income countries mostly consists of food that could have been eaten. It is estimated that the whole population of China could have been fed for a year with the amount of food thrown away in the USA alone.
Paper waste is gradually declining as we adopt a digital way of life (at least in high-income countries).
Plastic waste is considered bad as it is not recyclable and is leaving a long-lasting impact on the environment. The single-use plastic cup used once is thrown away and although disappears from person sight – stays there for 10 000 years. Global plastic production increased from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 300 million tons in 2013 and continues to rise. The Peoples Republic of China collects 56% of the globally used plastic amount. Europe exports 87% of used plastic amounts to China.
The 2.5 kg per day
The report also says that MSW is stabilizing in high-income countries but continues to grow in developing countries, mostly due to population increase. Still, if per capita calculations are made high-income countries are accountable for the largest share of waste, throwing away almost 2,5 kg per person a day whereas in other countries this number is less than 1.5 kg a day.
As global urbanization is increasing waste management in the largest cities in the world is under severe pressure and clearly is and will be a major challenge in developing countries in the nearest future.
So if it is impossible to live without waste and we do have such alarming statistics, what are the solutions?
The suggestion that policymakers propose is to change the production/consumption system and move from the current linear economy to a progressive circular economy. In particular:
- Stop uncontrolled dumping and burning of waste
- Affordable collection services
- Ensure controlled disposal
- Bring hazardous waste under control
- Focus on waste prevention
- Focus on the feedback loops, like maximize recycling and introduction of new technology that deals with waste.
In essence, tackling the waste problem at its source rather than in the landfill requires a new systematic approach such as designing out waste, preventing its generation, reducing, reusing, and, where residuals do occur, keeping them separate.
Yet not all countries and regions are on the same page with this, especially developing countries who do not agree to reduce its resource extraction as it is needed for economic growth. Some countries like China are tackling the problem by controlling population growth.
Thus there are no easy solutions and although millions and billions of dollars are invested in waste management around the world the speed of change is not sufficient. And it all comes down to people.
Reducing waste and controlling it on the personal level is a significant part of the larger system that includes:
- Environment – Climate change.
- Social – Clean cities with a healthy society.
- Economic – Resource efficiency.
- Integration – Setting and monitoring global targets for waste management.
As it was mentioned above high-income countries per capita are wasting almost twice as much as low and mid-income countries. Here are the roots of zero waste and minimalism. People who have understood this and take action.
It is great to be efficient, productive, relied upon and fulfilled by accomplishing goals that help others and create lasting change, but what about those who do not cooperate?
Yes, not all will come to the same conclusion, however, it is my belief that sooner rather than the later economy will shift and critical mass will be created. There should be no remorse of feeling of guilt. Check out this beautiful article on no guild in Zero Waste.
Take for instance significant policy and market changes that are happening now in the meat production, replacing animal meat with plant-based meat products for food. United Nations have released their report on meat production negative effect on climate change. Companies Beyond Meat stock prices have tripled in three months and rising. Burger king’s Impossible Whoppers are available in more than 7000 restaurants around the USA. Companies like Tyson and Nestle are increasingly focusing on artificial (green) meat production. Consultancy company ATKearney predicts that in 20 years the food-based meat will conspire 60% of the total meat market in the world.
Not all information is gathered and not all of it is precise, but the trend is obvious and it can be concluded that people in high-income countries with less personal waste initiatives can be a part of the solution and solve the larger problem.
However, to get more and acquire more possessions are so tempting, the whole economy pushes to consume and buy. The decision is still on the consumer side. Let us not fall into the notion that somebody else will take care of it or the problem will go away, some new technology will be invented and/or it is not my problem to solve.
The time is now!
To address the issue of creating less waste on a personal level?
Check out this interesting article about “finding enough”.
The achievement of goals gives us fulfillment and strength. We need to choose the right goals and see them in a broader sense. Achieve them without jeopardizing the environment that we are part of.
The Fox and the Grapes
I want to conclude this article with the Aesop fable about fox and grapes The beauty of it is that this fable has many interpretations. The reader can choose his own.
A Fox one day spied a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine trained along the branches of a tree. The grapes seemed ready to burst with juice, and Fox’s mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them.
The bunch hung from a high branch, and the Fox had to jump for it. The first time he jumped he missed it by a long way. So he walked off a short distance and took a running leap at it, only to fall short once more. Again and again, he tried, but in vain.
Now he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust.
“What a fool I am,” he said. “Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for.”
And off he walked very, very scornfully.
There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.
Please leave us a comment below on your thoughts on why should we reduce the waste now.