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Sustainability 109: follow nature's way with waste

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Waste management has got to be one of the least glamorous of all sustainability topics. Perhaps that’s because we too often perceive waste management as just having to dispose of waste. But we’d be better attuned to a sustainable future if we simply followed nature’s way with waste.

The discarded leaves of autumn that fall to the forest floor might be viewed as ‘waste’ — from a narrow perspective, that is. But, widen one’s view and time perspective, and all of those discarded leaves represent nutrients being returned to the earth, by way of wind and weather and worms and insects, to serve as the food that will help generate the next year’s spring growth. In this way, we can see that much of our ‘waste’ can still serve a useful life farther downstream. Waste therefore becomes a resource and an opportunity, rather than simply a burden to be off-loaded at minimal cost or trouble. This philosophical viewpoint is often characterized as ‘cradle to cradle’, meaning any item may reach the end of one useful life only to begin another.

Now consider all the waste we generate. The toothbrush we use each morning will some day become waste, as will the facial tissue, soap, washcloth, towel, clothing, coffee grounds, eggshells, newspaper and everything else with which we come into contact throughout our day. Each day we buy and consume more, and every day what we have already bought or consumed heads ever closer to that grand waste dump.

If we expect to have livable communities and a pleasing environment — and not be eventually buried under massive landfills of our own making — we must come to grips with truly effective waste management.

To manage waste, we must begin with the largest sources. Typically, construction and demolition activities will generate about one-fifth of annual waste volume. Roughly an additional one-fifth each is contributed by agriculture and by mining and quarries. Dredged spoil and sewage sludge add one-sixth, as does the combination of municipal and commercial waste. The final one-eighth or so is contributed by industry. Of course, across the board, encouraging the policies of reduce-reuse-recycle will help reduce the waste generated in every one of these categories.

In addition, there are specific efforts that can be made to reduce and better manage the waste in any particular stream. Source reduction is one of the most promising. Source reduction is the disciplined effort to reduce waste at the source of design, manufacture, packaging or purchasing of materials and products across all industries. Source reduction includes such efforts as a concrete casting company returning trim and waste to the originating material mix, a consumer products company reducing multiple layers of packaging, and my returning paper bags to the grocery store for refill. In construction, source reduction can include renovating an existing building rather than building anew.

Recycling efforts are also a promising option. While most of us have become adept at recycling aluminum, glass, plastic, metal and paper, advances can still be made in the recycling of such items as batteries, cell phones, computers, office equipment, furniture, carpeting, clothing, tires, autos, and virtually every other consumer product. In every industry, recycling options are becoming increasingly available.

Improvements in the collection and/or handling of waste can also be made. Automatic tipping trucks can minimize the labor involved in waste collection, self-sorting of recyclables can both reduce labor costs and increase productive volumes, and greater opportunities exist. A neighborhood in the Swedish city of Malmo has, for example, installed a sophisticated vacuum collection system for wastes, to completely eliminate the traditional neighborhood-circling garbage truck.

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