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Zero waste

Waste is the shadow side of the economy. Stripped of desire, it weighs like a corpse around the necks of the living. It is placed in black bags and transported, like the dead, to sites of exclusion - to landfills and incinerators, the graveyards and crematoria in the kingdom of objects.


Recycling all plastic bottles

From the perspective of policy, waste has first and foremost been seen as an issue of public health, something that needs to be removed from society as quickly and cheaply as possible. What has developed in response is a system of mass disposal, where household rubbish is collected and disposed of as a single stream of mixed waste. Scale and speed have been everything. Mass production has generated as its counterpart mass waste.

Mass waste

Mass waste is not simply the discards of mass consumption. It also comprises the waste generated at each phase of production, in mines or fields, in factories and shops, all of which far exceed consumer waste. In England, “producers” account for 91% of national waste.

With food, for every kilo we eat, ten kilos of waste is generated along the food chain. For consumer goods the trail of waste can be much greater. A car that weighs a tonne takes seventy tonnes of material to produce. Waste is the leviathan of the modern industrial system.

Over the past thirty years there has been a growing recognition that this system of extensive exploitation of the material world cannot be sustained. It is not just a question of the profligate use of materials: it is also the energy it takes to process the materials, and the ever mounting problem of disposal.

In many countries the trigger for change has been political - the opposition by local communities to extraction and logging at one end of the chain, and to new landfills and incinerators at the other.

But what started as primarily a movement of resistance has turned into a movement of alternatives.

The case is highlighted by organic waste. In England, we throw away a third of all the food we buy. In the pre-modern period much of this would have been composted or given to pigs and chickens. But urbanism and food regulation broke this cycle and resulted in a double loss. Not only did the land lose a major source of nutrients, but food waste was concentrated in landfills where, coupled with garden and other organic waste, it became a significant contributor to climate change.


A truck dumping garbage

However, as evidence grew about soil degradation and erosion, the environmental impact of artificial fertilisers, and the potential role of compost-improved soils for the prevention of flooding and for the sequestration of carbon, the pressure rose to restore the biological cycle. In the UK, a community composting movement grew up. Municipalities encouraged home composting and introduced “green” collections. By 2003, 2 million tonnes of organic waste were being composted at 325 facilities nationwide.

Industrial composting systems are now well established in the Netherlands and Germany.

But the most striking model has been developed in Italy. Municipalities found that making a separate collection of food waste from households and restaurants and encouraging home composting meant that they could both create marketable compost and keep organic waste out of mainstream disposal. Instead of the big black plastic bag, they introduced small, transparent, biodegradable bags, which could be collected by small electric vehicles and composted close by. A local biological cycle was restored.

Visibility is everything

In the Italian model, food waste was made separate and visible. Visibility is everything if food waste is to be transformed into a useful material. The same holds true for other waste. The moment waste is removed from the dustbin into the light, it becomes clear that, like food, much of what had been discarded as waste is potentially a source of value: recyclers in cities now refer to waste as “urban mines”.

Grey energy

More than that, much so-called waste embodied what is called “grey energy” - the energy used in every stage of production. By the early 1990s, the five leading non-food materials in the Western domestic waste stream - paper, cardboard, steel, aluminium and glass - were found to account for two-thirds of industrial electricity use in the US. Rescuing these materials from disposal has meant that the energy needed to manufacture from virgin materials is no longer required.

So, alongside the restoration of biological cycles, there has been a parallel move to restore material cycles, thereby preserving the value of the materials, the energy, and the work embodied in the discarded commodities. It is a question not just of recycling, but of “upcycling”: finding ways in which the qualities of the discards can provide more valuable inputs in their next life (crushed bottles as water filters, for example, or old tyres into basketball court surfaces). As with food, the perspective involves a shift from the linear model of mass waste to a circular model that conserves value and resources.

The critique of traditional waste systems and the development of alternatives has been led by community and environmental movements.

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