Waste, Wealth and Weather (Part three of five)

by Adam

Zero Waste – the real deal

In part two, I offered a lot of hints about what a Zero Waste society would actually look like – or work like – but here I want to be more explicit.

The Laws of Zero Waste

Zero Waste theory is built around two main laws and a couple of corollaries that can be drawn from those laws. I have searched for many years for a way around these laws without really finding one, so calling them laws is not farfetched. Most social laws are based on either physics – in which case they may be unbreakable – or human nature – which is subject to interpretation – or economics – in which case they tend to reflect the unsupported bias of a political class. These are based on logic.

First Law of Zero Waste – Reuse is fundamental.

Every material, substance product and gift from the commons has a beneficial reuse. If one person cannot see what that reuse is, another person will know it.


  1. Not every person understands the underlying nature of every material or product. Chemicals, radionuclides, biomaterials, electronic devices, electrical products, rocket ships – all require specialized knowledge without which it is not possible to find or understand the reuse path that needs to be designed for.
  2. It is possible to close off the search for a reuse path by decreeing that the object is unusable. Today this is common.  It is accomplished by affixing a name – junk, trash, waste or garbage are examples – which expresses the conceit that there can be no reuse. These names are a danger signal whenever they are encountered since they mean that the speaker has given up and is not even going to look for a reuse path so of course he won’t find one. Examples are hazardous waste, biowaste and nuclear waste.
  3. The reason that every item has a possible reuse path is because our industrial, intellectual and consumer society is so incredibly complex and varied and the imaginations of citizens are so fertile. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that for a radically new kind of item, for a while, it may be difficult to design a reuse path. This is invariably temporary and in no way constitutes a contradiction of the law.
  4. Never be seduced into asking the question: how can I reuse this existing product? You can waste your whole life in finding these answers. You are only assisting the garbage industry. Ask instead: how can I change the design of this product so that its complete reuse path is an integral part of its creation.

The second law of Zero Waste: There is no alternative to reuse in order to achieve maximum utility from every item.

  1. The opposite of reuse is disdain and disdain leads to the impulse to discard and shed oneself of responsibility. Irresponsibility is the hallmark of our present society but it can no longer be allowed. However, it is not the last or current user who can take ultimate responsibility since he is limited by the original design. It is the designer and manufacturer who must take control of ultimate reuse.
  2. Reuse of a small number or amount of some item by trying to find a new user or a thrift shop is desperate and inadequate. These are fine as far as they go but they simply postpone the problem. All items have multiple levels of construction. They have total function, partial deconstruction, disassembly into modules and reduction to basic materials. Design for reuse must address every one of these levels. Reuse of materials is not trivial or obvious but must also be carefully designed at the time of original manufacture.
  3. Reuse must address the entire production of a given item, not just some small percentage of items. Opportunistic, last minute methods such as downcycling usually leaves most of any item unaccounted for.
  4. Recycling is not reuse. It scorns function,  the most important part of any product and reuses only the least part of the product.

In its essence, Zero Waste demands that every item, commodity and product must be designed from the very start for reuse. No item can be designed for discard, or short or quick or cheap life intended to be followed by destruction. The destruction of any item’s function is a socially prohibited concept. No product may be sold or created until its reuse pathway is known and optimally designed for. The marketplace is no longer to be a free-for-all where any product can be made and sold without any plan for its perpetual fate. Where desirable and needed, the devices, procedures, parts and processing needed for perpetual reuse must be in place before any product is allowed to be created.

Obviously this is a radical departure from the free enterprise model in which we wallow today, where there are five thousand designs of forks and ten thousand designs of chairs and no plan for reusing any of them in any way after a first, abortive life.

Perhaps this strikes you as confining. Perhaps it would appear to overly depend on regulatory oversight. Consider this: resources form a central part of our manufacturing, mining and extractive society yet today, there is no resource policy at all. As Wendell Berry expresses it, “the biggest pump wins”. Go to the commons and start extracting fresh water, uranium, cobalt, petroleum, potatoes or lumber. No one tells you that you can’t, even if you have to pay off (or shoot!) some pesky villager who thinks he was there first. Resource extraction is so central to the control and power of the elites that sheer anarchy is enforced (for them!). Perhaps this was acceptable when mankind was a tribe on the tip of extinction but when eight to ten billion human beings inhabit this small globe, enforced anarchy is unsustainable. And unsustainable is a word meaning that you can’t just keep going without changing. You can’t ignore something unsustainable and survive. It’s a serious word and here it means that resource usage has got to be controlled and monitored through social policy. Just because we are used to vicious competition in an anarchic bare knuckled ring does not mean we can allow it any longer. Population pressure will not tolerate the freedom of anyone to grab anything anywhere and gobble it up until it’s gone. When we find and incorporate a resource, from now on, we need to know how it will be used for optimum effect and maximum efficiency. That means reusing the resources as close to endlessly in cycles as possible. No other way will do. We have passed that fork in the road of technology.

I am not saying that this is easy. If you imagine it can be done by simply changing the total mentality of politics,  consumption and manufacturing, by lobbying for new laws, that might be impossible. There are easier ways to shoehorn into it by redesigning one product at a time, thus proving the concept gradually. Then when a resource  crisis appears, an alternative approach will already be available.

In part two, I explained the extensive effort, labor and investment that went into a glass bottle, taken as a typical product. Most items are more complex than a glass bottle and require even more labor, design and human attention to obtain their valuable function. Consider all of the assembly and effort on every level needed to create a smartphone or computer. And yet the recyclers would have us chop it up, extract a small bit of copper or tantalum and pretend that we “reused” the product. This is sheer idiocy. Yet this facile propaganda for producing garbage is accepted on every hand by an uncritical public. How can this be?

I ascribe this mistaken acceptance of recycling propaganda to the Personal Delusion wherein consumers imagine that their personal choices can enforce best practices.. Here’s how it works.

Imagine yourself in two different situations and ask what your incentives are in each case.

  1. An INDIVIDUAL with a poorly designed, expired item in her hand, has to decide whether to recycle it or discard to a dump. It is too late to change the design in any way so the best that can be hoped for is a desperate attempt to use any small element of the item in any way. Give it to a thrift shop, find a new user or smash it up for materials. The consumer feels a healthy impulse toward reuse but has no good choices to achieve it.


  1. A SOCIETY decides how to design items, goods, commodities and products so as to build in reuse right from the start. One of the primary goals is to never put anyone into the situation in 1. above. Reuse becomes the common, standard way to treat all products.


These two situations have essentially nothing in common. The experience of the desperate consumer in 1. in no way determines the planning in 2. However, we live in a society where intelligent design for reuse plays no role. We are faced daily with desperate, last minute, least-evil choices. Without an awareness of the best possible approach, consumers mistakenly take the desperate choices to be natural, and unavoidable, thus the Personal Delusion. Nothing could be more wrong.

There are other exact parallels in other stresses and struggles. Contrast a battlefield with the anti-war movement:

  1. A soldier is in a battlefield. The other side is shooting at him. A soldier from the other side comes over a hill and points a rifle at him. He has no choice but to shoot first and hope to kill in order to protect his life.
  2. A soldier becomes an anti-war activist and attempts to redesign politics and conflicts so that no one is ever faced with “kill or be killed”.

The two situations have little in common. If war is eliminated, no one will ever need to kill for survival again. But a soldier who does not think about the larger picture can easily arrive at the Personal Delusion. He will believe that he was facing an evil enemy, who needs to be destroyed, and that killing is fundamental reality. He adopts the mind set of those who control the system and loses sight of the possibility of a better way to design conflict.

A third example comes with money. You and I have to find sources of income or we have no way to buy stuff or pay bills. X dollars in, X dollars out. Many people assume that governments work the same way. There is an attempt to exploit this confusion by pretending that national budgets must be balanced and national debts all paid off in full and quickly. That is the personal delusion applied to money. But governments don’t work that way except for the ones based on someone else’s currency.  American banks create money by issuing credit. When they grant a loan to buy a house or finance a business they simply make an entry in a computer and voila, your account has money in it that did not exist a minute ago. None of us can privately pull off this trick, but that doesn’t mean we should apply our personal limitations to national issues.

It should come as no surprise that the corporate and political elites who have much to gain will design systems to preserve their power. Just as they embrace war as a powerful gift to themselves, just so do they design manufacturing to produce garbage as quickly as possible so that they can sell again and again. The phrase Planned Obsolescence was created to describe this situation. As intelligent observers, we need to undercut their benefit and substitute our benefit as inhabitants of a finite planet. We have seen how haughtily the elites refuse to take climate change seriously, so long as they can keep in place their profitable fossil fuel consumption. Petroleum is not unique this way. It is only a single example. All the resources of the earth are being depleted in the same manner.

Zero Waste and Climate Change

Climate change  (CC) is the premier environmental issue of the day. How does Zero Waste theory impact climate change?

A good deal of the agitation over CC revolves around replacing harmful, carbon dioxide emitting energy plants with renewable sources such as solar energy or wind or tides. This is all to the good but it is only half of the needed conversation.

How much good will it do to rationalize energy sources while wasting and discarding most of it for nonsense. The most obvious wasting is the direct type. Energy is directly consumed for something obvious like burning lights or heating a home when no one needs the light or the heat and it does no good. We can all point to parking lots or office buildings that are ablaze all night long with essentially useless lighting. Recognizing this kind of energy wasting leads to the observation that conservation is the cheapest form of energy supply, and this is a cogent prescription indeed. But what about the waste of energy which is not so obvious? What about indirect wasting in which energy is used up unnecessarily in creating a tsunami of goods that are poorly designed to be used quickly and then discarded. What about energy that is consumed to create a welter of goods that are not needed in the first place but are only created to serve the tumble of competition, so that one company can try to duplicate another company’s product in order to steal away some market share? The ways in which goods are created as little more than waste products from the start are legion. This is where CC finds a major contribution, as coal plants burn away to produce electricity to make products that the world has no need for.

Recall the discussion of bottle manufacturing in Part Two of this series. My comment there was that bottles do not make themselves. Every class of product is the result of a complex, interrelated, heavily consuming industry. Employees, investors, miners, builders, farmers, transporters and all their families and supporters are part of a vast network of contributors to production. When a product is designed for early destruction, and then discarded, all of this effort and consumption of every kind of input has to be expended all over again. On the other hand, if the intended functionality of that product can be extended indefinitely, in every case, the investment and consumption of resources needed for that reuse is far smaller than than that which is needed to create a new product from scratch.

Why can I be so sure of this conclusion? It is simple. The function of a product is the goal which takes the lion’s share of all the effort that goes into a product. The very meaning of reuse is the reuse of the greatest possible part of the function. In other words, reuse by its very nature means that a portion of complex function does not have to be recreated. If a product is smashed, to capture mere materials, as the recyclers would have us do, all of the function is discarded.

Consider this example: in the nineteen fifties, high fidelity phonograph records were new. They came with a new set of electronic gadgets such as a record player, a preamp, an amplifier and speakers. They all processed the audio signal from reading it off the record to booming it out the speakers. The commonality of the audio signal allowed all of the components to be plugged into one another to perform the next step in processing the signal. All different brands had to be compatible. This exemplifies the fundamental principle of modularity which is basic in Zero Waste theory. Any module could be replaced, repaired or upgraded independently of the others. Replacing the function of one module, still preserved all the functionality of the other modules. Later on, manufacturers realized that they could force consumers to throw away all of the components at once just because a single component failed. Boom boxes, for example, combined all the components in one, cheap, plastic box. Higher grades of phonograph, with player and speaker in one box, began to replace the components. The garbage dumps filled up with boxes of perfectly usable components.

The same development is seen over and over. We used to have printers, scanners and copiers. Today they are all in a single box. When the printer head clogs up, throw away the whole package. Desktop computers had card slots for every function but laptops have everything miniaturized into one case.

These are just simple examples of how high function is maximally preserved by reuse. Since function is what costs most of the effort as contributors live their many lives while creating it, preserving function is a major way to reduce the evolution of greenhouse gases. Thus Zero Waste designs are the key to reducing greenhouse gases while the contribution of recycling to that goal is insignificant.

It is a commonplace to opine that resource wars will be the focus of political strife in the coming century. Water wars, food monopolization, control of mines, destroying rain forest for biofuels – these can be seen by all. Even resources that are consumed in use have huge sidestreams of reuse. Food for example is said to be 40% shunted to waste that should all be reused. Chemicals have gigantic byproduct streams filling railcars, dumps and injection wells. Yet the anodyne of recycling/incineration/dumping succeeds in putting whole societies into the long sleep of lazy irresponsibility.  Do we want this to continue decade after decade?

I will end with a question. Will this careful analysis of resource usage have any effect on communities’ commitment to recycling? It seems unlikely. The Personal Delusion is not that easy to extirpate. The corporate propaganda for recycling comes at us ceaselessly. Logic versus Delusion is hardly an even contest.