A World to Waste, Part 4

September 11, 1998

By Michael Jessen

What is waste? The word come from the Latin vastus, meaning unoccupied or desolate, similar to the Latin vanus, meaning empty or vain, and to the Sanskrit word for wanting or deficient.

The definitions of waste fill many columns in the dictionary; barely a hundred words in the English language have as many dictionary definitions.

The meanings of waste range from wilderness and uselessness to disease and foolish spending. Almost every meaning is a negative one -- decay, ruin, pollution, defilement, contamination, dirt, garbage, excrement, refuse, dregs, dross, scum, trash, junk, scrap -- and those are just the nouns. The verbs include meanings like tarnish, sully, smirch, stain, blemish, dirty, blotch, and squander.

According to Kevin Lynch, a major figure in American urban design and city planning: "Waste is what is worthless or unused for human purpose. It is a lessening of something without an apparently useful result; it is loss and abandonment, decline, separation, and death. It is the spent and valueless material left after some act of production or consumption, but can also refer to any used thing: garbage, trash, litter, junk, impurity and dirt."

As Lynch says, "there are waste things, waste lands, waste time, and wasted lives." Waste has a far more pervasive influence on our lives than we often realize. "Waste implies negligence or human failure," says Lynch in his book Wasting Away.

Yet humans survive on and use the waste of other species: manure, guano, alcohol, cheese, pearls, amber, petroleum, limestone, coal, peat, organic soil, and plant oxygen. Wasting is an essential process in the whole living system on Earth, only undesirable when it is blocked, or when it generates material at a rate or of a type that can not be absorbed by our ecosystem.

Lynch explains: "If life feeds on wasting, and life is what we value, then wasting is wasteful when it fails to support life."

One could certainly make the argument that landfills constantly stuffed with human detritus do not support life. Yet effective disposal is important to our survival. As material production and population rise, our wastes increase and become less easy to break down, some raw materials become scarcer, and space for disposal is harder to find. The new methods of waste disposal that then become reasonable -- such as reuse and recycling -- may seem very unpleasant to old habits of mind.

Of all living creatures, humans are the supreme creators of waste. It is only recently, however, that we have started to think seriously about the ways in which we waste. The question we must ask ourselves is: Can we accept that we are part of a universal wasting stream, and see in that our place and our connection?

If you can understand that we are only on the threshold of changing our attitudes toward waste, it should not be surprising that our economic system has been slow to catch up with our mindset.

Since Canada is a country that has always relied on the export of natural resources for its economic well-being, it shouldn't surprise us that our tax laws and government subsidies support primary resource extraction. Yet how many of us realize that the freight rates to transport recyclable materials by rail are higher than the rates to transport virgin raw materials? I complained about that inequity to my then Member of Parliament 26 years ago but it still hasn't changed.

Are you aware that if you manufacture envelopes from raw pulp, your federal business tax is lower than the same business down the street that chooses to make envelopes from recycled paper? According to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, the biggest government subsidies come from tax breaks for exploration, development and capital costs for mining. Recycled metal production is taxed at 4.5 percentage points higher than virgin, representing an added cost of $281 million per year, states their 1995 study. Is it any wonder that prices for recyclable material remain low with such laws in place?

If you are a manufacturer of plastic toys and you wanted to make use of recycled plastic as a marketing tool, you would quickly discover that the virgin plastic raw material is greatly cheaper than recycled plastic. How long do you think your company could exist selling toys priced higher than your competitors?

The problems that prevent efficient recycling are many and complex. Most stem from the fact that we do not yet live in a recycling-reusing-reducing society. We must learn to think positively and creatively about waste and wasting. We are currently bad at wasting and we must learn to waste well. We cannot throw anything away, since there no longer is an "away"; our experience tells us that materials may change their form, but they do not disappear.

TRASH TIP - A quote from Kevin Lynch: "Wasting has not usually caused fundamental social change, but it accelerates changes already under way, and shifts the distribution of burdens."

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