Zero Waste Epilogue – Applications (Part five of five)

by Adam

In the earlier four articles I explored various aspects of Zero Waste as an actual, workable theory but I really didn’t explain any nuts and bolts. You are probably still wondering what it really all comes down to. After all, you know what recycling means. It means you put paper and glass and etc. into the blue bin. Easy enough. But if that is truly as insignificant a symbolic act as I explained it is, what should you actually be doing?

The key is this: remember what Zero Waste theory is all about. It is never about trying to make something out of garbage. It’s about designing things better. It’s about poking your finger into the eye of the powerful 1% elites by taking away their power to control your life by designing your situation, your environment, your finances, your human relationships in ways that profit them, and designing your surroundings in a new way that instead benefits you.

Compare that challenge to a similar one that we are all struggling with today, the struggle to stop building up and throwing money at oil companies and instead to redirect our society toward renewable energies. We have research on solar cells and we have special financing models for helping people to install solar panels on their houses. But at the same time, we have much larger, billion dollar federal subsidies for oil companies. We have oil companies with gigantic spills that destroy the habitat for millions of humans and other species and they keep right on getting government contracts. What we are seeing is a particular social and financial design, promulgated and enforced by the elites, for their benefit. We don’t know how to make the most efficient solar panel yet so we need to support research toward that goal. This is a general principle when searching for a new design. The recyclers love to poke fun at Zero Waste by challenging: “so how are you going to reuse a cell phone (or a plastic water bottle or a medical CT scan machine). Huh! You don’t know, do you?” as though this were a serious challenge. Remember, if you don’t know exactly, technically, how to accomplish something you may need to bring in scientists and experts and have them study the question. There is no shame in having to search for a particular, well-formulated and spectacularly designed solution to a problem.Ā  The recyclers demand magical answers that don’t require any work. Every university should have a Zero Waste department, or a Resources Design department doing graduate research into optimum ways to design resource reuse paths for products, commodities and industrial processes.Ā  There should be a National Laboratory for Resource Design liberally funded to do the research needed. This is the way to really explore the nitty gritty of how to reuse the highest functions of complex technical objects.

But wait! I’m not trying to sidestep the question by passing it off onto “research”. There are many products that do not require such complex research to see how to vastly improve the way in which they can be reused. Standard Zero Waste theoryĀ  (see the Zero Waste Institute website ) gives us powerful tools for finding solutions readily. For example:

  • Re-design products and their social frameworks, don’t try to reuse badly designed products.
  • First, identify the function that the product must serve and design to reuse that function.
  • When reusing function, it must be done efficiently and elegantly, not in a degraded or wasteful way.
  • As product function deteriorates in use, include design for reusing the next lower function and the next lower.
  • Even simple looking materials may have enormously complex functions arising from their molecular level complexity, their biological complexity or their specialized applications.
  • Simplify everything by standardization. There is no need for fifty different handles, five hundred similar motors, five thousand fasteners, seven thousand bottle designs and specialized tools that only work on one model.
  • Modularize as much as possible. Make designs that can be plugged into each other so that when one part breaks, the other parts continue in use.

Let’s try to apply these ideas to the lowly bottle which we have discussed earlier. What is the function of a bottle. It’s basically a container. Its function is to contain. At the same time, its function is to keep the contents clean and to deliver them upon demand. Another implied function is to be easily filled. Let us ponder how we can support all these functions while reusing the bottle endlessly. As we said earlier, the answer is to design the bottle from the start to be refilled with its original contents over and over.

While this is not difficult to conceive of, it is also not trivial. There are certain bottles which are purposely so flimsy (today’s disposable ones; a styrofoam cup) that they cannot be refilled but in normal use they are likely to break or split. Other containers are sealed after filling and can’t be refilled. Some containers are cunningly constructed to deteriorate or become unusable after first use. A prime example isĀ  paint cans which are designed to become covered in dried paint and to rust.Ā  Steel cans generally cannot be resealed but many can be replaced by Mason jars. All of these designs must be repudiated and no longer used in the new refilling regime.

It is also important to take note that this new design will not beĀ  implemented just by designing a bare product – a bottle. The bottle’s design itself is necessary but not sufficient. We must also design the social and commercial processes which surround and effectuate the bottle. People must learn to wash out bottles soon after they are empty, without waiting until the residues dry or mold. The bottles must be identifiable as to their original contents, either by a label or a special shape. Every household must have some simple carrier to carry the bottles to the refilling station. The expectation that contents will be supplied with a brand new container must be expunged (it is less than a hundred years old after all). And a simple way to do the refilling and resealing must be offered to the consumer. This last will require a special design. I call it a “refilling station” and it will become the new form of supermarket. Imagine a large store with hundreds of filling nozzles for dispensing all manner of liquids and flowable dry goods such as grains or powders. On the Zero Waste Institute website there are additional design considerations and mechanisms described.

In one fell swoop, we have made use of standardization, modularization, functional design, psychological reorientation and commercial innovation. The result is to eliminate a huge part of the packaging waste that is perceived as such a problem today and it depends on no recycling, no disposal and no destruction.

How would we actually put such a scheme into practice? That is where Zero Waste theory really shines. There is little or no need for any new laws, politicians to agree or wrenching social policies, at least not at the beginning. What is needed is for a business to start up which incorporates all of these ideas in a business plan.

There are dozens more similar new businesses presented on the website of the Zero Waste Institute listed under Projects. Each one shows how a socially necessary function can be incorporated into a new, more rational design. I invite contact from entrepreneurs who want to build a business they can be proud of. I did this in the seventies and my nicely profitable company received praise from around the world.

I began this article by pointing out how simple it is today to recycle. But why is that true? Why is there a blue bin on your curb? Why is there a collection mechanism for that bin and why is there a place for the bin to go to? It is all a matter of design. Your city government has decided to design resource usage the way that the garbage industry wants. Your city council is responding to this corporate behemoth for three major reasons. First, they are as unaware, uneducated and unconcerned with truth and logic as the rest of the citizens. Two, they love getting a franchise fee from the garbage industry which is a nice, low-profile fund that they can use in special ways that their constituents don’t usually inquire about. Ā  Three, they represent a society that is committed to encouraging wasting and garbage at every level, including abundant government support for that by policy, by law and by finance. And how delicious it is when you can support wasting by calling it “green” to public applause.

by Paul Palmer

Email at: