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Published on May 30th, 2019 | by Sarah Dephillips


What is Waste?

We throw the term around enough – waste. We waste time, waste space, waste money. But the kind of waste we want to focus on here is a noun, not a verb. The kind of waste we’re talking about is often synonymous with trash. Although, as we’ll explore a little bit here, waste is not always conventional trash that you throw in your trash can. So what is waste? Maybe it’s obvious, but we feel the need to define it before we unpack how to  eventually prevent it. Let’s explore from a sustainability perspective what classifies something as “waste.”

Definitions of waste

Merriam Webster online defines waste as: “(A.) damaged, defective, or superfluous material produced by a manufacturing process, (B.) refuse from places of human or animal habitation, or (C.) material derived by mechanical and chemical weathering of the land and moved down sloping surfaces or carried by streams to the sea.

Paul Hawken, author of the groundbreaking 1993 book The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, states that “Any time a system creates by-products that harm rather than further life, it is a form of waste, and by definition, it is uneconomical. An enduring and true economy does not create waste.” The Ecology of Commerce, Hawken, pg 51. Hawken’s book was among the first and boldest calls to action for business and industry to redesign with sustainability in mind.

His book inspired Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of a carpet company called Interface, to overhaul his whole business to operate sustainably. In his book called Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, Anderson states that “Waste is any measurable cost that goes into our product that doesn’t add value for our customer. At Interface that means not only off-quality carpet and scrap, but anything we don’t do right the first time: a misdirected shipment; a wrong invoice; a missed delivery date. Anything. Then, in 1998, we added this little kicker to our own definition: All fossil fuel we use will be counted as waste to be eliminated. ” Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, Anderson, pg 46. 

We can think about waste from an individual, societal, or business perspective. However we view it, we need to remember that all of those entities exist as part of a larger system. That system is the planet where our materials come from and where they end up.

The difference between a straight line and a circle

From a systems perspective, waste is the difference between a straight line and a circle. What does that mean? We’ve all heard of “the circle of life” or “the food chain.” These are common phrases used to refer to the way in which matter is cycled on planet Earth. Water cycles through the biosphere. It evaporates into the atmosphere, condenses and rains onto the Earth’s surface. Then it goes underground or collects in lakes, rivers, and oceans, is taken up by plants and animals, gets expelled or evaporated from plants and animals…. You know how it works. Water doesn’t “come from” anywhere in particular and doesn’t “go away” to be disposed of. Water simply moves on in the cycle, always serving some purpose and remaining infinitely reusable. Many nutrients and elements in the air and the Earth’s surface (carbon, nitrogen, potassium, iron, etc.) follow cycles that similar.


An image from NOAA detailing the carbon cycle.

The point is that almost everything readily available in nature is infinitely reusable by nature. When you zoom out and consider a whole ecosystem, one organism’s “waste” is another organism’s food. In sustainability language, this is what we call a “closed loop.” In a closed loop system, there is no such thing as waste. Paul Hawken says, “Nature is by definition cyclical; there is virtually no waste in the natural world that does not provide food for other living systems.” So how did we break the circle and make something nature never thought of?

The origins of waste

Obviously all our materials do come from Earth, so how did we manage to invent waste? It starts with digging things out of the ground that have been there a very long time. Fossil fuels and bulk metals are on this list, although small quantities of most metals exist in soil and water. And while fossil fuels were once living organisms, their form has been changed so significantly and they’ve been sequestered so long that today’s ecosystems are harmed by their reintroduction.

Plastics are getting a lot of attention lately, and rightly so. Plastic is made from petroleum which is one of those substances pulled out of the ground that nature doesn’t really process. It also doesn’t break down into substances that nature can use like glass or cardboard do. Rather, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller plastic. These “microplastics” are then airborne or waterborne pollutants full of harmful chemicals. They are consumed by fish, birds, and other organisms, then passed up the food chain in a process called “bioaccumulation.” This article on how trash affects the whole planet gives more detail. 

Beyond digging up things that nature has buried, we humans like to play chemist. We create compounds that are toxic to living things and release them into the environment. This happens via direct application of toxic substances, like applying pesticides to a crop. It also happens as a byproduct of other processes, like when dioxins are created during the incineration of other compounds. Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce, writes:

“Unlike nature’s ‘waste’ (which is really not waste at all), business wastes have no value to other species or organisms and may be fatal to them. The environment can absorb waste, redistributing and transforming it into harmless forms, but just as the earth has a limited capacity to produce renewable resources, its capacity to receive waste is similarly constrained. Its capacity to accept highly toxic waste is practically nonexistent.” – Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce, pg. 37.

The linear production system

So while nature’s patterns of production and consumption make a closed loop, the human production and consumption pattern resembles a straight line. We extract resources from a source – often called a product’s “cradle” because that’s where the product is essentially born. With a few exceptions, we tend to deplete our sources faster than they are replenishing themselves – whether that be coal, oil, fish, or forest. We then make, use, and dispose of products. The places we put used products are called “sinks,” or even the products’ “grave.” The phrase “throw away” is a deceiving one because nothing on Earth really goes away. It all goes somewhere. Landfills commonly come to mind when we think of product sinks, but it’s much more complex than that. The air becomes a sink for incinerated trash. The water becomes a sink for chemical runoff from agricultural land. The ocean is a common sink for trash that doesn’t make it to the landfill or recycling center. Even the tissues of fish and mammals become sinks for chemicals and toxins that nature doesn’t process.

The problem with the linear model is that our sources are being depleted and our sinks are being filled up. Sooner or later, there will be no more resources to harvest and no more place to dump waste. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things put it, “Whatever is naturally here is all we have. Whatever humans make does not go ‘away.’” (Cradle to Cradle pg. 103) This classic video called “The Story of Stuff” is an oldie but goodie, illustrating how the linear production system is incompatible with living sustainably.

What now?

It seems like a dismally hopeless situation. We’ve created a massive global economy that has broken the very principles of natural systems. But here at Green Living Ideas, we don’t want to dwell on the problems – we want to acknowledge the problems and dwell on the solutions. So now that we’ve outlined the problem of waste, we want to spend the next several weeks doing a series of articles on how to close the loop, fix the broken systems, and live zero waste lifestyles! Going zero waste as a species, a nation, or an individual isn’t going to be easy, but as our population continues to grow and impact every other species on the planet, it is necessary. And we believe it can be fun, creative, and inspiring! So join us on the quest for zero waste as we unpack real, practical strategies to reduce and eventually eliminate the concept of waste from planet Earth.

Attribution-free waste images courtesy of Pixabay.

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