“No such thing as waste”

August 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

…is what Leonardo da Vinci said 500 years ago. I’m listening to Paul Connett giving a lecture on zero waste, over skype, to a room full of Indian students in Chennai (courtesy of Reclaim Our Beaches, a youth activist organisation linked with the Vettiver Collective that I work with).

Paul began with a reference to Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff project, pointing out that in the contemporary debate on waste the focus is the wrong question, namely “incinerator or landfill?” Both these are wrong because the focus has to be on how to reduce waste. One way to do this is to reduce the waste you produce (by challenging the assumptions and basis of what Paul calls the “throw-away society”); another is to separate out what you throw away into things that can be recycled or reused (these are the so-called 3 Rs; more on this later). Talking about India, Paul suggests the priority is organising ragpickers, and ensuring Indian policymakers don’t replace the crucial work they do for their livelihoods with incinerators or landfills.

What about the global north? Paul points out that in Vermont there have been experiments with training unemployed workers to refurbish items that would otherwise be labelled “waste”. When I heard this it occurred to me that on Green Lanes, the North London community where I lived before coming to India, there are three shops within spitting distance of the side street I lived on (part of the so-called “Harringay ladder”) that refurbish laptops, phones, iPads and other gadgets, and then re-sell them. Then I thought of the eBay cottage industries around bicycles in London, in which bike-savvy people buy worn-out bikes and sell them for parts. Somehow it hadn’t clicked, until now, that these businesses are part of the solution.

Paul also talked about community composting initiatives, and here I thought of the community gardens I encountered on several housing estates in Hackney last year. The way Paul put it, it suddenly became clear to me how not only gardening but, more specifically, composting and the pursuit of zero waste can become a starting point for community organising efforts (a thought for the two courses I will be teaching in the coming spring term). It occurred to me that they offer a particularly good starting point because even if not everyone is interested in them, there is – as Paul noted – a consensus that they are Good Things To Do. Once people get it involved in these non-controversial activities, it can be left up to them and the group which way they go in their analysis of Why Things Are The Way They Are, and in their response to this analysis in terms of What Should Be Done.

Paul believes what is needed is models, good case studies of What Can Be Done. Lots of his examples come from Italy, but also many from California. It strikes me that what such case studies can offer is not only models of What Can Be Done, but ways of understanding practically What Is Being Done, already, in part by opening our eyes to how the refurb shops and eBay businesses are part of the solution…

…But are the 3 Rs enough? No. They are things the community can do or already does. In addition, we need industrial responsibility, political responsibility, academic responsibility. For example? Industrial responsibility, from the zero waste perspective, involves telling industry that if something cannot be recycled, or reused, they should not be producing it. That is zero waste, and that is how “incinerator or landfill?” is the wrong question. Is it impossible? Paul: we need products designed for disassembly and we need clean production, finding ways of making everything we need without toxics – “a big challenge for the chemists amongst us”.

I haven’t put in all the details of his argument here. On the basis of what I have just written, many counter-arguments can be made. But surely all of us have a responsibility to at least engage with the zero waste perspective. Why? Some statistics: a combination of recycling and composting is 46 times better than incineration in terms of energy loss. Paul’s website, americanhealthstudies.org, has a load more statistics, case studies, and filled-out expositions of his position.

This is how Paul ended: “I think the most subversive message we have right now is that in addition to offering jobs, community cohesion, and other things, zero waste offers hope to our children.” Why? “Think what they are hearing about in the news every day. All of this is sending them a message that there is no future. This is a terrible thing to do to our young people. You cannot expect civilisation survive unless there is a kernel of hope.”

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