(37) The Zero Waste Movement

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INTRO: Hello, deep thinkers, this is your host Agrita and welcome to Mind Full of Everything, the podcast that questions the deeper and bigger things in life, from intersectional environmentalism to self-development and everything else in between. Today’s episode discusses the feasibility of the Zero Waste concept, giving examples of its application and emphasising on the need for systems to be decolonised so that we can shift away from the imperialistic linear economy and re-enter the circular economy, which will benefit the planet as a whole. 

The concept of sustainability is multifaceted, as well as intersectional. Some of these aspects have been, and will be, discussed on Mind Full of Everything. One facet of sustainability is a concept of zero waste, that is grounded in minimising the number of materials ending up on the landfill, through reducing our consumption, reusing the products we have, and recycling/composting biodegradable products. Although this sounds more like a belief system adopted by individuals, zero waste has transformed from a concept to the Zero Waste (capital Z capital W) movement calling for a reimagination of our systems by shifting from a linear economy to a circular economy, where essentially no resources leave the system and are reused again to minimise waste. 

The concept first formally originated from Daniel Knapp’s Total Recycling concept and how all types of waste can be reused within communities and subsequently avoided from entering the landfill. Knapp and his wife began the Urban Ore Initiative in the 1980s of salvaging goods, which acted like a real world example of how zero waste can be carried out in practice. Urban Ore is still running today and estimates they divert more than 8000 tonnes of waste annually from landfills. 

From the 1990s onward, the Zero Waste concept began gaining momentum, with a surge of individuals and organisations beginning to set out a Zero Waste framework. For example, in 2001, the first ever Zero Waste International Alliance summit was proposed, and by 2003 more than 300 representatives across the globe attended the third summit in San Francisco. In the 2010s, the movement had become mainstream; Bea Johnson is credited for beginning the Zero Waste lifestyle movement with her family and sharing her personal journey, achieving minimal waste that millions of people around the world began to follow and really engage in the discourse around waste reduction in their own homes. In 2012, Lauren Singer began the “trash jar” movement by restricting her non-recyclable waste to a single jar over four years, and this led to a whole wave of millennials participating in the trend. 

And now we’re seeing individuals and environmental organisations constantly challenging businesses to cut down their plastic waste, with many companies already undergoing a radical reformation to become plastic free, in terms of their packaging, and using alternatives to plastic. The last few decades has really been momentous for zero waste. 

However, most people tend to forget their zero waste is most definitely not a contemporary practice, and it isn’t really something that we should be proud of, but rather be worried that we have abandoned such an environmentally friendly and socially just ancient practice. Within the hunter-gatherer phase of human development, waste essentially didn’t exist. Synonymous to animals living in the wild, any materials that we didn’t use were of natural origin and would have decayed, decomposed, consumed by another animal/organism, essentially recycled back into the environment. 

Even when we began to build developments and civilisations began to become established, zero waste was in practice through effective waste management. One of the most famous examples of this was the Aztec empire Tenochtitlan, which is the modern-day Mexico City. The empire would recycle all of their waste and reuse whatever they could for a population of 200,000. Even human waste was used as a fertiliser along with food and animal waste, or within fabric dyes. Any materials that couldn’t be reused, but were combustible, were combusted to act like street lights. There is also no historic record of Aztec garbage dumps, so the Aztecs had a deep understanding of waste and its impact on the environment and livelihoods, especially the air, water and land pollution that excrement and organic waste can produce. In fact, there was severe sanctions, even death penalties, for those that polluted or were wasteful, especially those from wealthy households. I think this is a stark contrast to contemporary society, where the wealthy are essentially immune to sanctions for infringement of environmental laws, and the less financially stable are having to pay the consequences of their wasteful actions

Ancient Asia was also grounded in the practice of zero waste and maintenance of essential natural resources. For instance, harmonious living with nature for conservation through the practice of basic hygiene and waste management has been explicitly mentioned in Hindu scriptures written in the time where India was mostly pastoral and rural in nature. Zero Waste was a set waste management plan used throughout ancient India, such as recycling, household waste, decomposing carbon underground to be used as fuel, composting food waste, again, due to this understanding of recycling of nutrients and soils and the ecological benefits of this waste management. 

Buddhism is also grounded in Zero Waste and emphasises on minimalism within the religion. The first of the five precepts within Buddhism states Buddhists should refrain from harming living beings. Therefore, ecologically, damaging practices such as single use plastic usage, fossil fuel consumption, littering, food waste, production of non-recyclable materials etc. are practices traditionally avoided by Buddhists. Mattai is a Buddhist belief system that emphasises on the interconnectivity of all things and beings, similar to what I briefly discussed in the Reconnecting with Yourself episode, if you haven’t listened to that, I do recommend you do. In ancient Japan, this belief was expanded to create the concept of Mottainai, where the -nai suffix is a negation of Mattai, therefore Mottanai is the expression of the loss of the link between living and nonliving entities, and grief over this loss, which I find very beautiful. Not the disconnection of course, but the emphasis on the need to preserve connectivity between the living and nonliving worlds to maintain balance of life is very beautiful. You see the efforts of overcoming this disconnectivity through various practices in Japan, especially ancient Japan, such as kintsugi, the traditional art of repairing broken ceramics and pottery with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. 

Unfortunately, with the rise of colonialism, many of these beliefs and practices that have significant environmental and social benefits were replaced with wasteful ones, and those countries and nations where these practices were indigenous to have clearly forgotten their importance. It’s really painful to see that. In fact, the linear economic model is a product of colonialism itself and the rise of imperialistic approaches to growth. European settlers were known to have very poor waste management systems in place. For example, solid waste would be usually thrown onto streets. Horse manure would be left on the roads, and this was a major waste issue, especially because horse and carriage with the main form of road transport. To be honest with you, this isn’t surprising because this leaving of horse manure on streets is still in practice today. Every single Londoner that has gone into Westminster will know exactly what I’m talking about. No one cleans up, it’s just there, which doesn’t make any sense to me! These colonial practices are still in place, which is a product of poor waste management. Any waste that was collected during those times would be thrown into ponds and rivers. For example, the River Thames in London was infamous for its dirty, pungent waters due to dumping of waste. Once the European settlers identified the issue of sanitation and the impact it was having on their people, in 1881, the Department of Sanitation was established in New York City, but this focus more on sanitary and anesthetic purposes rather than management of all materials. Unfortunately, this was flawed as well as any residual waste would be dumped into water courses and bodies. 

Imperialism driven by capitalism also brought with it invention of plastic in 1907, increased usage of natural resources such as fossil fuels, wood, metals and ivory, increasing stage of artificial fertilisers and production of these materials boomed during WWII, especially after the success of the Industrial Revolution. As word began to become more globalized, urbanised, industrialized, these ecologically damaging activities began to become more widespread, which drove the rapid decline of indigenous waste and resource management, especially within the countries that would regularly use these practices. For example, Japan has pretty much forgotten the ancient practice of Mottainai and has become the 2nd largest plastic waste generator per capital in the whole world, which is more than the entire European Union.

India is now generating the most amount of waste in the world, as claimed by the World Bank, producing more than a 10 of the world’s waste, which is more than China, but in terms of per capita, the country is amongst the lowest. This is very heartbreaking, especially as an Indian myself. I have grown up with the understanding of the importance of minimum waste, reusing and recycling, I have literally been conditioned to practice reducing my waste and purchases of goods. My parents absolutely hated when I waste food (if I ever waste food) or throw away functioning items or purchase unnecessary items. Even returning items my dad genuinely gets pissed off! So, I’m not used to producing a lot of waste just within my own household. Doesn’t mean I am zero waste, however, when I hear about the waste crisis in India and in countries that have had histories of zero waste that was the foundation for functionality of those civilisations, it really hurts to see the mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Just because we want to become as developed as Western nations that have had a horrific history of waste management and resource management. 

But of course, it’s important to acknowledge that ancient practices were successful within the ancient context, and Indigenous practices are successful, especially within a rural environment. We can’t always replicate these management approaches within highly urbanised spaces, unfortunately due to the nature of development that’s taking place across the world. Therefore, in order to achieve or be close enough to achieving a Zero Waste society, our approaches need to be radical so that we can swiftly exit the linear economy and enter a circle one. Because dismantling such an ancient system that is embedded into society will require firm actions for long term change. 

Although it seems impossible, and I admit I too saw it as impossible, a lot of people believe if we could achieve it back then then we can achieve it now, especially since we have the relevant technologies, resources and funding to make it possible, particularly developed nations. Academics are the Imperial College London have set out five radical ways in which we can achieve zero waste that I think all believers and practitioners of Zero Waste will use as their reasoning for the strong potential of the concept. I have put the article on my website so please check that out in your own time. 

So, the 1st way that the article set out is that we need to only make products and materials that can be reused and recycled. The fundamental goal of Zero Waste is entering a circular economy. Therefore, a Zero Waste society will only be using recycled materials and recycling existing materials and not producing virgin ones. What I really liked about the Imperial article was that it really acknowledged the importance of developed regions to implement these changes first, especially because they have the necessary tools to make it happen, yet they continuously choose not to prioritise Zero Waste. For example, the UK exports 611 thousand tonnes of plastic packaging to other countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and these countries already have their own ocean plastic pollution problems. So, when the UK sends their plastic waste to these countries, they are going to be managing their waste in environmentally damaging ways such as incineration or dumping into landfills. Until we don’t hold both the nations accountable for failing to manage their own waste and failing to set examples for other countries, there is no way that we can support sustainable waste management in developing regions, it’s morally incorrect. But this really requires an improved governance and stricter sanctions for businesses that failed to comply to waste restriction. 

The 2nd way is adoption of a “design for disassembly model” where every new product needs to be designed in a way that it can be easily separated and its constituent materials can be reused, recycled or the product can be repaired, and this includes complex electronic devices such as computers, phones and batteries. The nature of the assembly will of course differ for every single product because each product is manufactured in a different way. Therefore, transparency needs to be a key element to production, where manufacturers will need to be legally obliged to set out the manufacturing process, the materials used to create the items and any other procedure that goes into making the product. But it will also require cross collaboration between industries, where one company’s trash can become another company’s treasure. So whatever materials a company or industry can no longer use, another company or industry can make use of it, again, keeping the cycle economy in mind. However, companies really need to be informed of the benefits of such exchange. Therefore, incorporation of academics and researchers is very important so that this knowledge can be spread further, as well as the support of governments. 

The 3rd radical way is the need to break our collective dependency on rare metals. With the current ban of production of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 in the UK, the demand of electrical vehicles has naturally increased, particularly due to the increasing concern over particulate air pollution that is produced from petrol and diesel vehicles. But we also can’t overlook the means in which metals for batteries are extracted or manufactured. Many lithium-ion rechargeable batteries require cobalt, which is mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo under horrific working conditions, with many cases of child labour being reported, not forgetting the environmentally damaging consequences of mining. There are also major concerns over uneven access of rare earth metals. Estimates suggest that China controls 85% of the world’s capacity to produce and process these metals. Therefore, we need to find alternatives to mining rare metals and producing electronic devices and components with alternatives that don’t require mining or production of virgin materials. 

The 4th way is perhaps the most controversial suggestion of the five, but it’s something that I do agree is a good method of waste reduction if it’s managed properly. Incineration of waste can be an effective method to generate electricity while simultaneously eliminating waste. The exhaust for power stations that will be incinerating the waste can be treated so that greenhouse gas and particulate emissions can be avoided, or greenhouse gases like CO2 can be stored or used to produce other products. This is specifically a great solution for residual waste that can’t be recycled, can’t be reused, and this is even more useful if the majority of our materials that we use are plant based, specifically cellulose-based, so that materials aren’t produced using fossil fuels. But again, this solution needs to be explored more within the scientific field to avoid unintended side effects, especially leakage of greenhouse gases. 

And the last one is probably the most obvious, which I have been emphasising in the previous actions, which is improved governance, government action, and collective responsibility, which is essential for us to progress towards Zero Waste. Time and time again we have seen the capabilities of governments acting rapidly to challenges, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen a massive change in collective behaviours of the public in terms of environmental and social sustainability, and whilst technologies are still being developed that catalyse progress for Zero Waste, governments can undertake a wide range of actions to start the journey of Zero Waste. 

For example, the UK government can support the waste management of developing regions. This isn’t just applicable to the UK government, this is for every single wealthy nation, but because the Imperial article is based in the UK, within the UK context, I mentioned the UK. So, the UK government can support waste management of developing regions. They can also ban the export of materials for recycling and take on full responsibility to manage their own waste. Government can phase out manufacture and sale of single use plastics, Germany has planned to do this by July of this year. They can phase out composite packaging such as coffee cups and Tetra Pak. They can also implement a “right to repair” policy for electronics to reduce the number of electronics being thrown away. They can also separate collection of textile, food, garden and residual waste, with better access to recycling facilities through raising awareness, awareness campaigns for example, and also distribution of recycling information and resources.

I personally cannot tell you how frustrated I am not knowing what it is I can put into the recycling bin and what it is I can’t. The main thing that really annoys me is not knowing how to recycle plastic bags. So, whenever I order something online and I get it in plastic packaging, it says you can recycle those plastic bags, but then you can’t recycle those plastic bags in your household recycling. And then whenever I try to search where to actually recycle these plastic bags and not throw them into household waste, I just don’t get a proper answer? There will be a place saying “oh you can recycle it here” but when you go there with all these bags you don’t find that facility, which is really frustrating because you don’t want to be putting these plastic bags in the bin, but you have no other choice because information is just not given to the public of how we can actually recycle and manage our own waste. So, if there is a clear separation of collection of different types of waste, that will really help the public understand, better understand, how they can manage their waste and also see how the government is managing everybody’s waste. And the final thing that the UK government, any other government in developed regions, can do is recycling at least 1/2 of all end-of-life batteries by 2030. 

Zero Waste is definitely achievable. I used to think it wasn’t, but looking at the variety of options available and the science we have at hand to aid us, it’s attainable. However, as I mentioned before, I accept that reforming a wasteful production model that’s prevalent in so many countries will not happen overnight, over a few months, and sadly not even over a few years. There are risk factors that need to be considered and waste management strategies that need to be implemented to prevent occurrence of serious side effects. But as Imperial academic article mentioned, if we have the technologies for extraterrestrial exploration, we must have the technologies to restore the imbalance on Earth that we humans have created. We seriously don’t need any groundbreaking inventions, we need better governance where Zero Waste is prioritized so that the environment and society benefit. 

We aren’t going to revert back to subsistence or even commercial farming anytime soon. Those living in urban regions, particularly in developed nations, are too dependent on the urban lifestyle and I’m one of those people. No matter how harmful this lifestyle can get, I, along with many city dwellers, are used to it. So that means that we need to reform the way in which we live our lives in the cities to preserve the integrity of our ecosystems. And it really starts with becoming conscious of our own waste production and actively working towards reducing it, but for any waste programs and campaigns to be successful in the in the long run, we need to start decolonising our economies in order to decarbonise them

As mentioned before, colonialism brought in the linear economic model and all the wasteful practices prevalent today. To exit from the use-and-throw mindset, we really need to decolonise not only our minds, our lifestyles, but also our hearts, by putting the environment and indigenous knowledge first. We really need to stop seeing the environment and society as separate entities and rather society as a product of the environment, a small part of the natural world, and for that we need to start seeing the world through the eyes of indigenous communities that are continuing to be society’s paradigm of environmental stewards.

Therefore, indigenous practices need to be incorporated into all waste management efforts. And of course, these practices can be altered to fit into the context of the application. Indigenous practices, fortunately, are slowly being recognised as vital for progress in zero waste by many countries. Wilma Rodriguez, founder of Saahas Zero Waste model in India, where bulk waste policies requiring information such as destination of waste and composting waste by large corporations are now put in place in cities such as Bangalore. Additionally, a decentralised waste management, which is driven by the public resistance to centralised approaches, has been proposed by the model. But of course, work needs to be done to make this model more widespread. 

Africa has a massive zero waste potential that they’re taking benefit from, especially because a high proportion of their waste is organic waste compared to Western countries that have more difficult forms of waste that needs to be managed. The cities Sousse in Tunisia and Moshi in Tanzania apply the method of feeding livestock organic waste, which is again an indigenous practice. In Bamako, Mali, a large recycling rate has been achieved through the sale of processed and partially composted waste to crop and vegetable farmers. A Zero Waste pilot project in Zanzibar, Tanzania was started in September 2017 where 200 low-income households within low income regions were selected to segregate their own waste, and each individual received a monthly salary and opportunities to gain extra income through selling compost or materials such as metals, glass and plastic walls. This decentralised waste management model has been very successful and is being looked into being replicated throughout the island. Algeria and Rwanda use publicly run waste management programs that have been successful. 

Algeria’s program ensures that infrastructure is financed by the central government and waste collection is funded by the municipal household “junk removal tax” and this has resulted in increased waste collection rates in both urban and rural areas. Rwanda has implemented a compulsory community work scheme called Umuganda where citizens have to help in waste collection once a month for four hours. Although it’s seen as controversial, it has been implemented to bring a sense of community by looking after their natural environment and managing waste. 

These are just some of the few ways developing regions have started to incorporate back indigenous practices into waste management. Work still needs to be done, but a lot of changes happened through the recognition of the importance of these management strategies. With the integration of indigenous practices and prioritising Zero Waste for the benefit of the environment, which the society is a part of, it’s clear that we can very effectively save our planet from drowning in the waste that we have produced and try to return to a new normal, where the environment and society are put first over profitable gain. 

OUTRO: I’ve been skeptical about Zero Waste for some time now. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to go zero waste, I’ve always wanted it, but I just didn’t explore it enough to understand that it is feasible. The more we prioritise the environment and the more we see ourselves as products of our natural environment, the more we prioritise protecting our natural resources and species. As I’ve made it clear in previous episodes, it’s not the public that need to worry themselves sick over cutting down their waste. This is more about holding corporations and governments accountable for their lack of investment into Zero Waste by supporting movements and organisations that work hard day-to-day to hold these sectors accountable. 

Thanks for listening deep thinkers, I hope you’re all staying well and safe. Remember to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast app, and newsletter by heading to my website. You can also find the resources to every single episode over there. Support the podcast by writing iTunes reviews and mentioning the podcast to those that could be interested, seriously, word of mouth is super powerful, and buy my eco-friendly pin badges. Connect with me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. I am all ears for what you want to hear next on the podcast or want me to elaborate on. Keep listening to Mind Full of Everything, and I shall see you all next time. 


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