What is waste?

As we all become more knowledgeable about how to conduct our lives in a more sustainable way, the complexity of sustainability becomes more apparent.  In this blog, Polly questions ‘waste’ and how we approach the concept of what is waste:

When the first LED traffic lights were installed on roads, the public planners surely patted themselves on the back for saving the council money on their energy bill. LEDs use less power than halogen or fluorescent lights, for the same brightness of light, so the new LEDs were expected to prevent wasted energy. The problem only became apparent when winter came and temperatures dropped. Perhaps you can guess what happened when snow started to land on the lights?

It turns out, light was not the only thing the old ‘wasteful’ bulbs were using power for. Light was just their primary function. That extra power that the old bulbs were using was dissipated as heat, which was useless in the summer but melted the ice and snow in the winter. The LEDs did not produce enough heat, so the traffic lights became completely obscured by snow.

When I went on a visit to a machinist workshop, my guide showed me the piles of swarf that came off the machines. He said that the primary product produced in any machinist’s is not the parts ordered by their customers, but swarf. By weight, there is more swarf and scrap produced in the machining process than useable parts. But it’s not wasted. The swarf is collected, kept separately according to the grade of material, and sold on to be recycled into new billets.

While drinking cheap cider at a student union pub years ago, I was informed (incorrectly) that cheap cider is made from the apple cores left over from making more expensive cider. There’s a certain logic to this myth that makes it an appealing factoid for pub banter, but in fact, all cider is made using whole, un-cored apples. However, it is true that fruit is graded after it is picked, to determine where to send it. Only the best fruit, free from bruises and blemishes, is destined for a fruit bowl in someone’s home. Lower grades of fruit are used to make canned fruit, frozen fruit, jam, juice, and other products where the appearance will not be judged by consumers.

Waste or Resource?

Recycling-sceptic economist Michael Munger defines “garbage” as anything that you don’t want, which no one will pay you for. Clearly swarf and ugly fruit do not meet this definition, so Munger would categorise them as resources. The same can be said of all the cuts of meat that humans don’t like to eat, (tongues, ears, snouts etc.) which make perfectly adequate dog food.

Amongst the cultural and political attempts to limit the amount of waste sent to land-fill, I find it comforting to remember how much we have succeeded already to reduce waste, without even trying to. Manufacturers have a profit incentive to sell the by-products of their manufacturing, or to find a use for them, so they often do.

Love it or hate it, Marmite Yeast Extract is made from the by-products of brewing beer!

Even horse manure, dropped haphazardly in the middle of the road, was once a valuable resource. Anecdotal history tells of times, not too long ago, when people would hurry out the door to beat their neighbours to a fresh pile left by a passing carriage. They used it for fertilizer or burnt it for fuel. To this day, farmers buy and sell animal waste to use as fertilizer (a fact which I am often reminded of on windy days, as I live near the countryside.)

What about Plastic?

Plastic is the super-villain of the single-use economy, but we only use plastic to manufacture single-use products because it’s cheap, and plastic is cheap because it is made from the by-products of refining crude oil into fuels. Plastic is so cheap that there is very little profit incentive to recycle it. That means instead of plastic manufacturers knocking on your door to pay you for your old cream-cheese tub, you have to wash it and recycle it out of the goodness of your heart. Even then, it often costs more money to collect and sort the recycled plastic than it costs to extract the resources from crude oil by-products. For many years, China was the primary buyer for used plastic from all over the world, but they stopped in January 2018. Now, used plastic is sent to landfill and incinerators instead, leading to a shift in public policies away from encouraging recycling, towards reducing the amount of plastic used.

Discarded plastic may be going through the same de-valuing process that manure once did; going from “resource that I can use or sell” to “something someone will take off my hands for free at a large scale” to eventually “something I have to pay someone to take away for me.”

How to change your approach

When designing the layout of an office, where should you put the toilets, the coffee machine, and the printer? You might be tempted to minimise the amount of walking that staff have to do, but walking is good exercise. Having a short walk after sitting at a desk can increase your heartrate and blood-flow, which might improve your mood and make you more productive, or even inspire you to be more innovative. Perhaps the optimal location for the coffee machine or water-cooler might be at the top of a long flight of stairs, or the bottom of sun-lit garden path. This involves hitting the challenge with a different set of parameters – what is really important?    And this is the question for all companies who are on a sustainability journey.  A brilliant recent example of hitting a challenge sideways is from start-up Deep Green  who are using the waste heat from their data centre to heat a public swimming pool.   Too often companies try to find a solution in a silo –it takes an industry, a community or a network to create true business and environmental sustainability.

Be careful when you define “waste,” or you may be throwing out the baby with the bath water!

(I had the idea for this blog while walking back from the printer)

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