“It’s not waste until you waste it,” says Paul Connett in his ground-breaking book, Zero Waste Solution. If you are concerned about garbage and its effects on human and environmental health, his work is worth reading. Not only does he describe North American society’s problem in astonishing ways, he offers more than one solution. It is full of examples of “untrashing the planet one community at a time” which work.
The greatest revelation in Connett’s book is the fact that many of his solutions are not new. Old wisdom has a place. Any community worried about the damage which burying or burning garbage can have on the environment would be wise to read it. The foreword by Jeremy Irons reminds us that when solving a problem, you don’t want to create another. Or several. Or worse. Rather, he’d drive you to consider the phrase, “Waste not, want not,” and to certainly steer clear of incineration.
To avoid garbage, you need to convert it into treasure. Most people think of recycling as labour and energy intensive. It may be a necessary evil, though. Recycling suggests that if I put out six bins of recycling weekly, and you only two, I am three times better for the environment than you. But perhaps it only means that I buy more recyclables while you reuse. Maybe it means that I have several more people living in my house. Or, it may mean that you are thinking more carefully about each purchase and living more consciously in harmony with our environment.
One solution that was tried in the 1960’s in California with disastrous results, then revised in the current millennium, is the free store. Counter-culture types bought clothing, then told people to come have it for free. The stores went bankrupt quickly. Then in 2014, the brilliant people of Transition to Less Waste in Ingersoll asked for gently used clothing, which they repaired if necessary, and in a free store-front did roaring business for four days. They broke even.
A giant community swap meet in honour of that “Aha” moment will see its fourth iteration on April 11th in Oxford County. “TrashapaloozAha! 4” will invite people to clear out their garage, basement, shed or home and donate all the goods, as well as take any treasures from the others’ trash. Community charities will be invited to pick anything they can use to support their continuous programs. Free stores and Trash to Treasure meets are events; sustainable communities support the charity stores which retrain, support, hire and build skills among the marginalized.
Reusing is clearly better than recycling, saving materials and energy as well as building community. Waste diversion is a second option. The collection of scrap metal, electronic waste and vehicle batteries keeps contaminants out of dumps.
Better still than diversion is aversion. Why would you have that garbage at all? Do you need that plastic bag, that Styrofoam clamshell with leftover food, that composite material when a reusable cloth bag, a sealable container or a travel mug would do? Do you need to expand your closet for all the clothing you’ve bought? Though they might have been cheap at the store, they are actually ruinously expensive to the environment when you consider the transportation, the exploitation of the workers who made them or the hideous profits of the transnational corporations who have profited by your purchase.
Poor old Sweden is suffering – from a garbage shortage! No, don’t out of sympathy ship our trash to them. That would burn fossil fuel, contribute to environmental damage and climate change. Instead, we should imitate their model. Let’s refuse the refuse. Retail stores can be told to keep the blister pack, the extra packaging and the extraneous plastic. Manufacturers can get the message from you that you’d rather buy hardware in bulk – that as much as you like popping the bubble-wrap, you’ll have recycled cardboard packaging where absolutely necessary, please and thanks.
So, it’s not rocket science – and I beg the indulgence of all of those who think we should alternatively colonize Mars because we’ve made such of this planet, or that we should project our garbage into space and live happily while trashing Mother Earth. Zero waste is an achievable goal. To get there, communities need to develop an aversion to garbage, to divert garbage, to think deeply about following generations and to value the places we live.
Bryan Smith is the chair of the Oxford Coalition for Social Justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.