I’ve spent some time trying to convince you that recycling is a waste of time so you may be surprised to read that I will start off my list of things to do for a personal zero waste effort with recycling. Do it! Fill up that green bin! Why? Because it will make you feel better and you won’t want to just throw up your hands and give up. And also, because recycling is better than dumping when it’s too late for anything really useful.
However! You can do many things that are much more productive than recycling so do not waste your time in that dead end but just fill up the green bin and forget about it.
Always remember that Zero Waste is a design theory. We need to find excellent designs that will allow all goods to be reused endlessly. Are there some goods that are already designed to be reusable in a reasonable way? Maybe the design is not optimum (or even close) and maybe the reuse is just partial, not endless, but we can still do our best with poor ingredients.
Here is a surprising one. Plastic bags. For some inexplicable reason, ordinary people, intelligent people (people brainwashed to waste as much as possible) seem to think that plastic bags have only two fates after they get home. Either throw them away in a garbage can or set them out for recycling. Dumb, dumb, dumb! The plastic aspect means that, unlike absorbent papers (think fish and chips in a folded newspaper), that they can be washed off if necessary and reused again. All you need is a cloth shopping bag which you probably use anyway, filled with all your used plastic bags. Bring them with you to the store and use them again. And again. Endlessly. After they get too dirty or too full of holes (because they are designed to fall apart), you can put them into the recycling bin. Before then, you can wash them out with a rinse of water, roll them up like a shirtsleeve and let them air dry. Recycling plastic bags is an idiotic idea for reasons you can find on my website, but after you’ve gotten ten re-uses out of a bag, what difference does it make what you do with it. Make yourself feel better dollink. Put it in the bin marked Plastic Bag Recycling and move on.
Clothing. Did you know you can wash clothing and wear it again? You can even buy detergent and hire a washing machine. These are reuse modes. You are committing audacious zero waste when you wash clothes, repair your car or fix up your house. Disposable cars and houses are just around the corner in this wasteful land but for now, keep on reusing them, Disposable clothing has been produced many times but never caught on, except for hospital gowns and rubber gloves. Maybe there is hope for the non-complying, non-corporate public after all.
On the subject of clothes washing, I patronize a laundromat and I observe that 99.9% of patrons obediently take their wet clothes and put them into a fossil fuel burning clothes dryer. That’s not all they put in the dryer. They insert endless dimes and quarters too. Even in the summer time, when clothes drying is easy, fast and free ( like the women I prefer), they still feed the coin slots and burn the natural gas that we get free for the fracking. Do they then go home and lament climate change I wonder? Did 99.9% of the people who were slammed by hurricane Sandy in New York in 2011 dry their clothes for years past by burning fossil fuel and discharging carbon dioxide into the air because it was marginally more lazy convenient? Because they couldn’t be bothered thinking about anything different from the wasteful way they were used to? Ironic, isn’t it? So one thing you can do is to purchase a folding dryer frame or build a clothesline in your backyard or use the one you already have access to. No hurricanes will come near you, I guarantee it.
There are a few other products which have some reuse capabilities already, even if the designs are still poor. Bicycles for example used to have a lot of standard parts allowing them to be repaired by combining compatible parts. In Sebastopol, there is a group that collects unwanted and discarded bikes and builds usable bikes from the parts (Community Bikes). Ditto in other cities. In recent times, some of the parts have become customized and far less interchangeable. A few of the incompatible design changes arise from the need for new mechanical designs but many more are just uncaring lack of attention to sizes and compatibility. This trend must be reversed. Can you help with that? The answer is to stop sharing information about how to find customized parts, which is just enabling non-standard design and begin to change the mentality of making parts that are not standard. Yes, I know, we live in the present and have to deal with our reality even if it is not perfect. That’s how they corral us – we spend all of our time temporizing and struggling with their wasteful designs and have no time to figure out how to design better in the first place.
Glass (and plastic) jars are fairly well designed for reuse already. Some labels peel off easily leaving a clean surface so that new labels can be affixed for storing foods, liquids, powders etc. I cherish Costco plastic jars with large lids. I have a row of them on my sewing table with differently colored (and clearly labeled) spools of thread in them. Other labels may peel easily but leave glue on the jar or must be soaked off leaving glue behind. Keep a can of paint thinner around for cleaning. Paint thinner (or turpentine or kerosene) will dissolve most sticky glue residues quite easily while having no solvent power for the plastic jar. Don’t use lacquer thinner on plastic though since it softens many plastics. For a water soak, wrap a wet rag around the jar for a few hours. Buy in bulk and fill your jars.
Computers used to be very interchangeable but today the recyclers have convinced gullible politiicans to get into the waste game by designating electronics as e-waste. As soon as anything is called a waste, beware, you are facing a fraudulent attempt to pretend that no reuse is possible. E-waste in all its aspects is a major scam put forward by the recyclers. What can you or anyone do about it? Very little since they make sure that computers and other electronics are designed for easy discard and nothing else. However, there is a computer refurbishing industry which reassembles computers, akin to the bikes described above, to make newly usable computers. Especially if you control a large number of computers, research the refurbishing industry and avoid electronic recycling like the plague if you can. See this newsletter.
The Bay Area is reputedly the home of more authors than any other region. Most of them probably revere books. Here is what is needed to improve the reusability of books by a hundred times. Every book should have an RFID (radio frequency id tag) embedded right in the spine. The RFID should tell a reading wand the name of the book, the author, the subject tags, the size and more. This will allow the easy reuse and reselling of books in many ways. If you are a publisher, or an author with influence over a publisher, perhaps you can embed such an RFID in the spines of your books. RFID’s are so cheap today (near a penny) that they secrete them onto clothing to sound an alarm if you haven’t paid for the clothing when you leave the store. And they leave them right on the clothing when they are sold. So they would not add to the cost of a book if inserted during publication. They are so useful that one Belgian distributor actually goes to the considerable effort of adding them after printing.
Moving to a more involved topic, lately there has been a campaign by the recyclers to destroy certain goods of extremely high value, that are intrinsically endowed with high function that has taken the most exquisite efforts of trained, technical staffs, engineers and scientists working in high tech, super clean environments to produce. The recyclers, having no understanding of the value of function, look at these products and completely misunderstand their value. All they see is the trivial value of simple elements, taking no account of the difficulty and expense of assembling those elements into intricately targeted molecular forms. I refer to medicines; to pharmaceuticals. The recyclers have managed to mislead politicians (particularly in Alameda County) to go after these exquisitely valuable products with all the tools of destruction they can muster. It is akin to decreeing that human beings are worth only $3.58 for the simple chemicals that could be made from the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sodium and calcium that constitute the human body. The destruction of excess pharmaceuticals is sheer ignorance, dressed up in the trappings of environmental safety. What can we do to turn this campaign around? The first, critical step is to understand where value comes from and how important it is to reuse function and ignore materials. I am trying to impart that kind of deep understanding in these writings. The next step is to spread that message in opposition to the deceptions being broadcast by the recyclers. On my website, under Projects>Excess Pharmaceuticals I have a long discussion of some technical innovations that could insure the reuse of unwanted drugs and medicines. Some medicines are worth more than gold. Such high value arises from the mighty labors and investments and efforts needed to produce them, all of which is discarded along with the pills and other medicines. Informing the public in ways I will describe below is essential and you can do that work.
I have tried to describe a few isolated examples of goods which can be reused on some level by an accident of their design and usage. But we soon run out of those examples and need to point instead to other goods whose design must be improved if true reuse is to be achieved. This is where organization begins to be needed. There is no magical way to build an organization without involving large numbers of people. There is a need to develop a syllabus at every educational level, from kindergarten to graduate school, to teach courses in applied zero waste design. This will take prior education, at least partially, of decision makers in education. None of this is easy as the infection of recycling has poisoned the discussion everywhere. Ultimately there is no alternative to the creation of Zero Waste organizations, such as spinoffs or chapters from the Zero Waste Institute. Public discussion of every kind is needed. There is always the usual agitation of letters to politicians, participation in public panels, publication of articles, letters, books, facebook pages and more. How about picketing recycling centers as creators of garbage and planetary destruction? That might be a hard program to get started but it is a way to shake up public awareness.
If you are one of those looking for something you can do personally with your own garbage management, here is a program to think about. Half of all garbage is typically organic matter. This is food and grass clippings and dog shit and cat box cleanout and everything else that can be rotted by mold, fungus, bacteria and insects. When there was a garbage strike in Naples, Italy and garbage piled up in the city, this is what stank and caused the population to go ballistic with concern. It wasn’t the cardboard or the wood or the tires or the computers. Ironically, this is the one component which also has a proper, useful fate that is instantly available to all of us. There is no reason for anything putrescible to ever go into a garbage can, even in this enormously wasteful society. Call it compost, call it food scraps, but collect it all in a separate container and make use of it. Don’t be buffaloed by the compost police, who will tell you that rotting must go on according to their constricted rules and no other way. Rotting can’t be stopped. You can dig a hole in your front or back yard and bury it there once a month. Just chop it up in the hole, with your shovel, with local soil before covering it back up with native soil six or ten inches deep. It will rot underground and will add to the nutrient value of your soil as plant roots reach out and find it. Your standard garbage can will no longer smell (wash it out once) and you can save it up for months if you want. Order a smaller can and save money. A CAUTION: use a tight lid or a flat cover to make sure that flies cannot get into your food scrap can in your kitchen. You don’t want lines of fly maggots crawling out of it. And wash the can out with a hose after each emptying.
A Sample Sign For Your Compost Can
How is this different from the composting programs put out by the recyclers and enforced by garbage monopolies? First, the recyclers make the mistake of thinking they invented some brand new magical method for reusing organic materials. They add “rotting” to the other “r’s” and imagine they have a way to get rid of garbage. For Zero Waste theory, composting is just a way to close the agricultural cycle with a standard reuse theory, not a way to “get rid of” anything. Second, the key to the Zero Waste approach is taking responsibility. This works if EVERY LAST SCRAP of organic matter goes into the compost. You must wash out your salmon packaging and your milk containers. Is that impossible because of the package’s design? Then I hope that someday you will have the chance to change that design for the better. Organic matter MUST NOT GO ANYWHERE ELSE. To the recyclers, this is just a way of grabbing some organic materials and exploiting them. Grab half of them and you’ve solved half of the problem. But then you still have garbage cans and recycling bins that stink and are contaminated. The recyclers don’t even believe their own propaganda. A contaminated, stinking recycling bin can just be directed to the dump and they don’t care. But taking responsibility for your own detritus is a mature burden that grownups need to tackle. It’s not the endgame, but just a tiny step out of laziness and into social responsibility. Can you do this personally? Now think about how this could be mirrored by a larger society that did similar things on an institutional scale. By taking responsibility on a personal level, you are exploring the ways in which your society at large could reform itself away from wastefulness.
Here is a particular example of design that is so atrocious, so horribly bad that it actually might threaten life on earth. I am referring to nuclear power plants. Now understand, I have no use for these monstrosities but in addition to recognizing, for example, the dangers to human life posed by possible events still waiting to take place in Fukushima, I also want to use them as an example of terribly inadequate design that could be partly ameliorated, that could be made somewhat less dangerous, had we not allowed profit seeking corporations to run wild and to design and build the most dangerous human creations on earth. I like to point out the stupidity of designing such gigantic threats without having any plan for the radioactive byproducts of their operation except to designate them as “radwaste” and then pray that some miracle will come along and figure out a way to destroy these products that have been arbitrarily declared to have no beneficial use except to be buried for millennia. Remember, when you design for discard, you exclude possible designs for reuse. That is what has happened here. Stop designing for the long-term burial of byproducts and ask what radioactive elements they contain (americium, plutonium, cerium, dysprosium, hafnium etc.) and how those could be separated and reused. There is a good deal of published work on this topic but you will never learn about it in a discussion dominated by finding a Yucca Mountain to bury “radwaste” in.
Remember also, that product design does not happen in a vacuum. The social and commercial ways in which products will be treated, created, used and regarded is an integral part of product design. The nuclear industry cavalierly just assumed that after some period, as the plants aged and became unsafe, they would be dismantled and retired. However, Harvey Wasserman has provided a new scenario of how this may be completely unrealistic. As the world rejects nuclear plants, the experts who built and operated them are becoming older and retiring. The abhorrence of people everywhere for these plants leads engineers and students to avoid learning about the construction of these plants. The result we are heading for is a world in which hundreds of nuclear power plants have aged and are slated to be disassembled but no one can be found to do the work so there is no alternative to simply abandoning them, unsupported, unmanaged, all around the planet, to fall apart and spread their radioactivity far and wide as they crumble or are broken up by earthquakes and floods.
Could such a thing really happen? So far as corporations and the government that dances to their tune are concerned of course it could. What motivates them are profits, not social or physical health. It is the people, often called the taxpayers, who will have to take over, take care of all the dangers, find and train the workers and experts, if the technology is not simply lost, and dismantle the crumbling plants.
What should have been done? Like every other product of man, the fate of these behemoths should have been planned for in detail, and paid for in advance, before they were allowed to be built. The loss of expertise is not unpredictable in the long term. The ways to handle radioactive concrete, steel and water are known. What is needed is a provision to make sure that when the time comes, the machinery and technical expertise will exist to try to reuse the housings, the computers, the machinery, the hoists and forklifts and rails and motors in planned ways. Don’t imagine I am talking about their effective destruction and burial in the ground. These plants should have been required to be made with modular and standardized designs. Various concrete parts should be in reusable pieces that were bolted together so that they could be dismantled and reused. What actually happened? The concrete parts were poured in integral forms that could only be crushed and demolished if any thought to their fates was had at all. Demolition of buildings is the standard way to destroy the functions of buildings in this wasteful society.
None of this would have made nuclear power plants safe, or would have been an argument for relying on their power. The accidents that took place at Three Mile Island or Chernobyl or Fukushima could still have taken place, or other ones would have. A Price-Anderson Act would still have been passed to relieve the owners from liability for accidents by passing the liability onto innocent citizens. I am not talking about a political revolution for responsibility and integrity, only a better physical design to avoid the degenerate designs that exacerbated the political failures. Will we never enforce decent design for reuse until we are up to our armpits in an insoluble crisis of horrible design causing widespread death and destruction? Sometimes it seems that way.
There is one last topic I need to introduce to bring this discussion home. I am trying to show what one person can do for the struggle for intelligent design of society’s products. What I think is really the best and most powerful approach is to find a candidate product just begging for a conserving, intelligent design, then figure out how to create that new and superior design, then start a company for manufacturing and selling that superior product. I have many designs of this nature and I would welcome any contact by an entrepreneur who is interested in this approach. Business is still the one unfettered form of innovation that is open to activism and improvement as political freedom and civil liberties are ineluctably being closed down.