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What Does Zero Waste Really Mean?
by Paul Palmer
But what is it? In one sense, it really isn't that difficult. Zero Waste means that there isn't any waste. No garbage! No throwing anything away in a pit in the ground! No burning things just to "get rid of them". Everything is reused. On this level, the concept could hardly be simpler.
Unfortunately garbage has been with us for so long that most people have internalized it as a social behavior. Too many people have convinced themselves that the creation of garbage is an innate activity, even a social right! No matter that there is nothing to back up this defeatist idea except that we are used to it. So the first job of a zerowaster is not just to define the concept academically but to instill comfort in the idea that the creation of garbage has become unacceptable, unnecessary and no longer has to be tolerated.
A short while ago, cigarette smoking was considered to be a personal right. When people began to organize against polluted air, a powerful industry fought like a tiger to continue their socially destructive sales. People who had grown up with smoking shouted that they had a right to pollute everyone's air and no one could stop them. But social expectations changed. The rights were turned around to where no one has the right to pollute. The "right" to create and throw away garbage is another delusion that can and will be changed. Wait and see!
Moving to a deeper level, zero waste is a way to organize society so that every article or commodity that is used, by industry, commerce or personal consumer, is designed for reuse after its first use. And then for reuse after that.
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I would like to tell you that this is a simple change from today's practices but I can't. There are lots of implications in that brief description. It means that manufacturers have to add a new design element determining how their product can be reused, repaired, upgraded and renovated. And it means that society must assist them in this. After all, the premise is that there is no longer a welcoming dump to embrace anything that anyone wants to throw in it.
Today, there is essentially no design for reuse at all. To incorporate this new overriding design principle will take a lot of engineering and technical changes.
Unlike recycling, zero waste is not an end-of-pipe strategy. It means abandoning the idea that articles are used and discarded and then, surprise! we suddenly need to find a way to reuse the materials that are in them. With the adoption of zero waste principles, this will never happen, because the reuse practices were designed in right from the start. So it is clear that zero waste has very little in common with recycling. In fact, if zero waste thinking is implemented, recycling will essentially disappear. Recycling of materials will persist only when no higher form of reuse can be found, and then only temporarily until a higher form of reuse is found.
Are you confused by this? Are you thinking that design for reuse is the same as design for recycling? Not at all! In most cases, recycling is the lowest form of reuse you can find. This is because the most important thing to reuse is not the materials of which an item is made but the function that it serves. The first goal of any redesign is to make the entire article, or the largest piece of it, reusable in its highest form. Breaking a complex article into its bare materials is hardly better than discarding it into a dump. True, it temporarily keeps the materials out of a dump. But by degrading the complex article into mere materials, you practically guarantee that those same materials will soon find their way into another dump. And in many, many cases, they won't even stop to pass go. "Recycled" materials often move directly into dumps. End-of-pipe methods are hugely inefficient.
Recycling has been an amazingly successful social innovation. Over the past thirty years, it has raised the public consciousness and made dumping much less acceptable. But now it is time to move past that into taking true responsibility for everything that we create.
Why is function more important than the mere materials of which used articles are composed? Here are some examples. Consider the glass and plastic bottles that we are so often urged to recycle. Their function is to contain. Their materials are just glass or plastic. How much of the value of the bottle lies in the material of which they are made? Maybe five percent, or even less. All of the value is found in the proprietary shape, in the unique profile, in the recognizable identity, in the seal which allows them to be closed and poured from in short, in the fact that they can be used to contain something. When a glass bottle is broken, it loses all of that value. In order to then recover some small residual value from the broken glass, or crushed plastic, it has to be transported a long distance and then melted and reformed into a new bottle at great expense in fuel. Then it has to be refilled with some product and trucked back to the original customer. What a waste! How much better it would be to simply refill the original, unbroken bottle. It is already in the hands of a bottle user who just emptied it. No transportation and no remelting. This is what reusing function can accomplish but recycling discards.
As for the crushed plastic bottles, they are of so little value that in most cases, their "recycling" is just a pretense to make them more attractive to the public. In fact, they are most often taken directly to a dump.
In the case of the bottle, responsibility does cost the user something. He needs to wash out his bottle, keep it intact and ultimately bring it to a refilling station of the future in order to refill it. When the garbage industry markets its pretense of recycling by telling the homeowner that there is no need to wash or clean, no need to separate plastic from glass, they are blowing smoke. They are selling irresponsibility and trying to take advantage of laziness. But the result is that the planet fills up with polluting garbage and destroys our earth's patrimony, both silica (for glass) and petroleum (for transportation, plastic and heat). As we approach the end of the Age of Oil, we must simultaneously end the Age of Garbage.
Another example is found in the way that computers are mismanaged by the garbage industry. These immensely complicated instruments, which were wrung from simple materials by the application of high engineering skills, years of expensive research and the prodigal exploitation of human labor in multibillion dollar fabrication plants are insulted by the garbage industry which brightly claims them to consist of nothing but some steel, some plastic, some glass and bits of gold and copper. They actually have developed ways to crush, smash, shred and smelt these machines back into the lowest forms of raw materials. What a waste!
Even without the benefit of design for repeated reuse, there is a smaller industry which finds that it can refurbish and reuse many of these computers. They call themselves the Computer Refurbisher Industry and every week they collectively provide thousands of used computers to schools, training classes and people who could not otherwise afford a computer. But imagine how much more they could accomplish if those same computers were actually carefully designed for long life and perpetual reuse of all possible parts and features. Designing willy-nilly for maximum profit, assuming that a dump will always be there to welcome anything anyone wants to throw into it, is a primitive, irresponsible way to run a civilized manufacturing industry.
There is one industry that illustrates these principles so beautifully, it is essential to take a look at it. Imagine an industry that spends a great deal of money and human labor to produce a product that uses no materials whatsoever but can nevertheless be designed for reuse. Can you guess what it is?
The industry I have in mind is the one that produces software. From the zero waste point of view this is no different from the automotive industry, but the issues are clearer. Every programmer knows that he is simply wasting effort if he designs software to be used once and never again. There is a tremendous push in the software industry to design software in reusable modules called objects. So if the product has no materials to speak of, where does the recycling come in? Recycling theory may look at only the dribbles of paper or plastic that the software is recorded on. But the real cost of software is in the human labor. The huge investment in materials represented by software are all of those materials used by all those programmers as they buy homes, eat food, drive cars, read books and newspapers etc. In an exactly parallel way, the real investment in a bottle, which is summed up in the concept of function, is the resources used up by the laborers and engineers who created the bottle. This is the only reason there is such a wide gap between the value of the bare plastic or glass materials and the completed bottle. The same is true of computers, cars and every other product we produce.
Recycling has been reinterpreted by the garbage industry to be merely an add-on to the collection and disposal of garbage. California law, especially in AB 939 passed in 1989 has obligingly mandated what is called diversion, as the desired form of reuse. This means, first make garbage but then divert a small portion of it into recycling. It is the garbage industry which owns most of the beat and heat recyclers, and which picks up the most profitable materials at the curb. They have also instituted a way to fund recycling departments and efforts that is insidious, namely by surcharges on dumping. This gives recyclers a stake in continued dumping, undercutting their ideological commitment to getting rid of dumps.
Zero Waste, on the other hand, suffers from no such contradictions. It stands for the end of all garbage as we know it and for the end of that harmful anachronism which is the garbage industry. It requires no direct subsidies since the reuse of all manufactured articles will be paid for at the time of first sale. The major indirect subsidy which it requires is the same one that all modern technical industries require, namely university based scientific research to develop ways for manufacturers to design for reuse.
Now that we have outlined what Zero Waste is, let us point out some of the pitfalls around what it is not.
Zero Waste is never a form of destruction. It is always a form of reuse. How many ways can destruction be dressed up in seductively attractive ways to pose as a reuse. Any time the argument for a so-called "green" practice depends on getting rid of waste or keeping materials out of dumps or cleaning up contamination, be wary. Here are three examples:
One, destroying organic matter by anaerobic digestion. This means taking organic matter, such as food scraps or biomass, denying it access to air and waiting for it to break down without oxygen. A small portion of the mass will be converted into methane, which can be used as a fuel. It is mixed with non-flammable gases so it is even of low value as a fuel. But the greatest fraction of the organic matter is not converted at all. It just becomes a slime. The only reason you are hearing about this is because the garbage industry has mounted a campaign to reposition themselves as energy companies behind this process occurring in dumps. However it is actually a huge waste of energy. It is far more energy conservative to exclude all organic matter from dumps and beneficially compost it, thus using all of the nutrient value in that organic matter for growing new plants. One way to view the difference is to realize how energy intensive it is to create artificial fertilizers. By making a natural fertilizer, a huge amount of energy investment is avoided.
Two, when proposing a composting operation, it is often found that the reason given is to keep organic matter out of the dump. This should be an immediate warning. It is not a valid purpose. It leads directly to treating the compost facility as a dump for organic matter. That is far from being a facility for producing a high quality compost -- that would be a reuse purpose! The result will be a low quality "compost" with a limited or no market.
Three, plastic is often a problem but the answer is not to find better ways to destroy it. The right answer is to redesign plastic so that it is 100% reusable. There are many ways to do this. But making the plastic so that it biodegrades after a single use is not a proper answer. Plastic consists of highly refined molecules which represent a high function that took enormous investments of energy, money and labor. To simply destroy those molecules, such as by biodegrading them after a single use, is not a Zero Waste strategy.
Zero Waste closes the responsibility gap by demanding that our society stop pretending that unwanted articles and goods can be ignored, thrown away and discarded into dumps. Down that road lies all pollution. In taking responsibility, we are also taking back our one, precious planet. There can be no alternative.
Paul Palmer PhD, Chemistry, Yale, 1966
Green Living Journal roving correspondent Lois Lane recently caught up with Paul Palmer, author of Getting To Zero Waste, at his Sebastopol home. For over 25 years Dr. Palmer was a chemical byproduct broker and hands on reprocessor, much of the time based in Oakland doing business as Zero Waste Systems Inc.
LANE: Beside the fact that you are probably the first person in America, maybe the world, to use the phrase "zero waste" in a business name, what led you to write a book about zero waste at this time?
PALMER: I actually have been writing the same book for thirty years, while I did the work and sharpened up my analysis of what it all meant. Finally I had the time and also felt that I had a good handle on a deeper analysis of reuse than I had had when I first jumped into this business. I have unique insights that come from working with chemicals - such as the realization that difficult or dangerous or technical industrial items are among the most easily reused while I could see clearly how insights from the world of industrial reuse fitted perfectly into the world of consumer reuse. Meanwhile, the garbage form of recycling is getting to be about thirty years old now and it is clearly time to move on, to develop more sophisticated ways of reuse than the mere collection of simple materials.
LANE: Explain the meaning of universal or perpetual reuse.
PALMER: I try to avoid dwelling on the details of what the opposition does. I am not interested in measuring waste or critiquing dumps -- way too much time is wasted in that endeavor. I want dumps and garbage to vanish and become ancient curiosities. Similarly, though I began with the negative term Zero Waste, which has caught on, I prefer to express my goals in positive terms. What I am striving for is the perpetual reuse of every article in its highest function.
I realized a long time ago that reuse of simple materials was just not cutting it. The garbage industry has hijacked recycling and has turned it into a caricature. - a stick figure outline of recycling that will never threaten the voluminous creation of lots of garbage to be hauled into dumps, even while they tout recycling. Instead, I raise my sights to the recycling or reuse of the FUNCTION of all the articles of commerce, industrial as well as consumer. Remember that the garbage industry version of recycling is applied only to consumer trash, which is only 20% of all dump-bound trash but which is what activists see and agitate over. So the industry's core garbage business is secure. But if you focus instead on function, that leads directly into redesigning commodities to make functions reusable in the highest possible way, and that is just as applicable, if not more applicable, to industrial commodities. This does indeed threaten the health of dumps and the garbage industry. Which is what environmentalists and energy savers want to do.
Not everyone understands what I mean by recycling function, so I like to use the example of a bottle. Its function is to contain. Its materials are glass or plastic or metal or carbon fibers or any other material. It doesn't matter. Let's focus on the glass ones for the moment. In order to reuse the function, you need to refill the container, so it can once more contain. If you follow the garbage industry paradigm, you will break it into cheap glass, haul it to another city to a bottle factory, remelt it, refill it, relabel it, redistribute it and bring it all the way back to the original customer. What a waste of 98% of the intrinsic value of that bottle! The original bottle was in the hands of a user without needing that whole trip around the country and all that energy intensive melting. Keep it in the hands of that same user but fill it from a bulk container. That saves huge amounts of money and energy.
It turns out that this concept of function reuse is entirely general. All of our commodities have functions, which are the reason we own them. As they are used, or get old, some of that function degrades, but not all of it. We can design for reuse or upgrading of the remaining functions, which are invariably substantial. An older computer may not have the power we need for the internet but it may be wonderful for simple simulations in an engineering environment. Even if it no longer serves as a computer at all, the case has far more function as a formed piece of steel or plastic than merely as shredded chips.
It turns out that function is not only general, it is the single most expensive part of every item. Shaping a computer into a calculating instrument is where virtually all of the investment is used. Buying the few materials is a cheap, trivial operation. Similarly, recycling a computer as though it consisted of materials is such a terrible waste of time that it almost isn't worth doing. Almost. The greatest benefit is that it has created a generation of citizens who value recycling. I want to take that new consciousness and refine it to be not only self congratulatory but truly revolutionary. I want to use it to eliminate the very concept of garbage. No one should ever think of discard as natural again.
LANE: At one point you say that the existing recycling systems were invented by garbage-oriented people and they are destined for failure. Could you elucidate on that comment and are things getting better or getting worse?
PALMER: Things are getting worse, because the garbage industry has tightened its hold on recycling. They have learned that they can compromise even the recyclers themselves by paying them with surcharges on garbage burial. The recyclers are now dependent on garbage for their work, so of course they are reluctant to rock the boat. Imagine if the lumber industry gave every old-growth activist a dollar for each tree they clearcut. Or if antinuclear activists got a surcharge of a penny on every kilowatt of nuclear electricity. Buying out the opposition is an effective strategy. The first fight of the recycling activists has now got to be to reject all garbage based funding and substitute destruction-neutral funding sources, such as public funding. It's more difficult and painful, but it has to happen.
The other problem is the emphasis on bare materials as the natural subject for recycling. The activist community has got to move away from this analysis into the redesign of manufacturing, the redesign of collection and processing and the reuse of function.
LANE: My understanding is that there is a lot less hazardous waste in the marketplace today than there was twenty years ago due to off-shoring a lot of dirty businesses and changing various industrial processes to make less hazardous waste. Could a business like your Zero Waste Systems thrive today? What would you say to a technically-trained person considering starting up such a business now?
PALMER: I don't use the term "hazardous waste" because that just means dangerous garbage, emphasizing all the wrong ideas. All chemists know chemicals can be dangerous. Okay, that discussion is done. Now let's get on to the question of how to reuse chemical excesses universally so that no one will have any motivation to find Some way, Any way! to throw them into the ambient environment. Let's not use a term which implies garbage but let's use a neutral term, such as "excess" which is more descriptive. If all chemicals had reuse pathways designed into their processes, we would not have to live with the insanity of "allowable discharge limits" for polluting air, water and land. The only reason that we have such discharges is the laziness of a citizenry and industry that is not willing to invest the time and money to design universal reuse into industrial engineering.
There are millions of tons of chemicals still moving into dumps and incinerators and underground injection deep into the earth. That's plenty of material to work on. But you could not start a business like mine because the government today has practically forbidden recycling to be even tried. My book is loaded with examples of the unholy alliance between government and the garbage industry, driving all industries right into the nets of the garbagemen. That is why you can't start a business like Zero Waste Systems today. The government regulations prevent common sense solutions to chemical excesses and insist on nonsensical hairsplitting for any operation that is not simply destruction of the intrinsic value of the chemical excesses.
It pains me that the environmental community has largely adopted, unthinkingly, the analysis of toxic substances offered by the government. This analysis is fostered by the garbage industry which wants to be the sole legal player whenever any excess is generated. Hazard is important on a certain level, but becomes critical when chemicals are treated irresponsibly, such as by throwing them into the ambient environment, whether rivers or oceans or land or air. Then they become pollution and really do threaten defenseless living things. But stop allowing pollution, insist on responsible stewardship of chemical usage, and the hazard becomes a positive feature, inspiring care and reuse.
LANE: To what extent are the on-line materials exchange services like Craigslist and e-Bay bringing the reuse future you dreamed about into actuality?
PALMER: I don't see any overlap. When reuse is embedded in a social matrix of garbage, waste and irresponsibility it is necessarily only marginal. For example, there is a thriving demolition industry for buildings. They get fat contracts for breaking, destroying and burying, and a little recycling, primarily of steel and other metals. There are a few dismantlers and whole building recyclers but not many. Many steel buildings are excessed all the times, and these represent one of the most easily recycled kind of whole building. Many are assembled with screws and ribs and trusses and could easily be reassembled elsewhere. But when I needed a steel building recently, it was practically impossible to find one. I was offered one by a recycling hotline that sounded good but months later I found out it had been demolished six months earlier. Demolition contractors assured me that you could not economically move one. I ask the question: if the planet is groaning because of the load we impose on it of resource wastage, should a few dollars more in some arbitrary, subsidized and managed market mean that we continue to trash the planet? Or do we reorganize markets to make sensible choices?
LANE: Is there any movement at USEPA to change from hazardous waste management to hazardous materials management and reuse?
PALMER: All states are required by the laws of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to apply the federal regulations strictly. Any state that does not enforce the draconian federal regulations, which insure that all excesses which incorporate any hazard are locked up and put straight into the chute leading to destruction, will find itself taken over by the federal EPA. The USEPA works hand in glove with the garbage industry.
Even simple, reasonable operations needed for recycling are effectively outlawed. There is a ninety day rule which says that you cannot store any "hazardous waste" for more than ninety days, period. Big fines if you are caught. But recycling may require the accumulation of minimum amounts, taking a year to produce. Too bad! The garbageman comes in ninety days. An acquaintance I know works with a particular kind of metal compound that he buys in paper sacks. He used to burn the empty sacks and recover the excess metal from the ash. The EPA came along and forced him to give the sacks to a garbageman, for disposal, because the commonsense recovery of the metal salt was treatment of hazardous waste (a terrible bugaboo to the EPA). And of course the garbageman gets to charge a fortune to simply carry the sacks to a dump.
LANE: I think we understand the high value of reusable products, but many of the consumer-generated discarded materials (like glass, wood, and some metals) are low value materials. How do you see recyclable materials becoming more valuable and therefore more common?
PALMER: As I noted earlier, recycling bare materials is virtually a waste of time (except when there is no higher function to recycle, which sometimes happens). I don't want glass to be more valuable, I want to see the disappearance of broken glass as a recycling venture. The only time it would make sense is when glass is inadvertently or inescapably broken. But that would probably account for less than a thousandth of one percent of what is being remelted today. Bottles should be universally refilled.
The same story applies to wood and metals, though the details vary. That is one reason we need to have research being done in universities to study the best ways to redesign and reuse articles of every description. Today we are saddled with a garbage industry-inspired simplistic paradigm for recycling, consisting of maximum destruction, just short of disposal. Unfortunately the recycling community has allowed that paradigm to permeate their thinking, to where they think of recycling as some simple process that is applied to any commodity whatsoever, at the end of its first use. Reuse thru zero waste strategizing is actually a difficult chemical, social, mechanical and engineering challenge, comparable to the creation of commodities in the first place. Redesigning of industrial and commercial manufacturing for maximum functional reuse is not a simple task, The garbage model of simple materials capture is no model at all.
LANE: There are times in reading your book that you seem bitter, that the government threw too many unnecessary roadblocks in your way towards running a viable business. Is that a fair characterization or are you more mellow than the book seems to say?
PALMER: That's an interesting question, but a personal one. Yes, the reuse model has been squelched by the authorities resulting in the continued destruction of the planet for no good reason except the ability of powerful economic institutions to make more profits. It's like the current government, in a world running out of cheap oil, encouraging all of us to use even more oil so that Chevron can squeeze out some phenomenal profits from the last drops. If you see that happening, can you not feel trapped in an anti-human system? When the last old-growth redwoods are being clearcutted and the courts and laws encourage it, do the Redwood Summer activists just shrug it off? I doubt it. I think one of the differences is that I lived and worked during the creation of chemical regulations which outlawed intelligent reuse. I saw what could have been done and I knew what roads were closed off for political advantage. Most people didn't see it and could not question the distorted rationalizations that were fed to the public. The "hazardous waste" scare of the seventies and eighties was enormously effective, but how much more was hidden underneath those supposedly protective laws. What price did we pay in enforced pollution in order to control sporadic and thoughtless pollution? I watched it happen, and to a large extent, I knew what the price was. It made me resent and distrust government. But didn't the same thing happen to our whole society in recent decades?
Reflective environmentalists assure us that every environmental measure is worse today than it was twenty years ago, despite heroic efforts. Bitterness seems like a reasonable attitude if it leads to resolve. At the same time, I use the crippled social mechanisms made available to all of us. I drive a car and sometimes even use a garbage can and don't worry about it. But I maintain a hope that things will get better and that my book will contribute to a revolution in thinking about how excesses are treated.
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