Urban ecology

Households can produce zero “waste”

Interesting, isn’t it, that in western society’s mindset of good-bad, useful-useless, productive vs. non-productive, Permaculture argues that there is no such thing as waste.  Now www.dictionary.com offers a definition of waste as: “(something) having served or fulfilled a purpose; (and which is) no longer of use”.  This feels like a very short-sited view of things, that simply because we have taken some usefulness from a product and now we are done with it, it is automatically rendered useless?

Permaculture, on the other hand, claims that waste (in the sense of seemingly useless or superfluous by-products) does not really exist.  Rather, this kind of waste, and for that matter pollution as well, are indicators that you are producing too much of something in your system, that the elements are not in balance.

Let’s consider kitchen scraps, most of which end up in garbage cans and get shipped off to landfills every day.  If I peel my carrots in order to cook them I am left with one main by-product – the carrot skin.  In that particular moment those skins are of no immediate use to me so the life-long reflex to toss them in the trash surfaces – they’re waste, right?  Not really, they just haven’t found their usefulness yet!  After all, those carrot peels can be used by another animal, or their organic matter can be transformed to become very useful compost.  Put things back into balance.  It’s as simple as putting those carrot shavings back into the system to be transformed, either tossing them to the chickens to peck at (if you’re lucky enough to have chickens) or placing them in your compost.  Carrots may seem like a banal example, but it does shed light on the false concept of waste being this useless and pesky thing that we just have to put up with.  It’s not true – matter can always be of use – it just may have to be transformed through natural processes first!

This is also a prudent moment to mention the wonderful urban solution of vermicomposting, which is essentially turning organic matter into compost using red wriggler worms, a system that can be kept indoors and is therefore extremely useful in colder climates (where I currently live in Calgary, Canada the winter cold lasts for approximately 6 months out of the year – time in which a traditional outdoor compost doesn’t gets the chance to decompose!).  I started my own worm bin about 6 weeks ago and my half pound of worms are courageously eating away through all of my organic kitchen scraps!  I’ll surely be writing more on the wriggly experience in a later post.

Now that’s all fine and lovely for the organic waste, but what about all of the products we use on an ongoing basis that are not, or not immediately, biodegradable?  Well, obviously, a lot of packaging be it plastic, paper, aluminum or metal can and should be recycled.  In general, larger cities in the western world have some type of recycling program put into place.  Make use of it – and if you and others find that it isn’t convenient/well-organized/good enough – write a letter and create an interest group in your town to put pressure on the local government!  Remember, real and lasting change always comes from the bottom up.

In fact – with those two steps right there: composting and recycling – we get rid of a huge chunk of our household waste.  Depending on how you live and what you consume, of course, but in my case I would say that it accounts for approximately 9/10 of what used to be my garbage.

Well, let’s not overlook that remaining tenth.  Again, the challenge here is to completely, or as close as possible, eliminate the real and abstract concept of waste from our homes, and our lives.  Other odds and ends that can be rerouted or at least deterred for a long time from their trip to the trash can, include: used tissues (flush like toilet paper, compost, burn in fireplace), old toothbrushes (keep them to do minute cleaning with – ex. in the kitchen, I use them for cleaning bike chains and bits of jewelry; you can have them on hand for crafts or painting projects) and old clothing or socks that are beyond repair (dust rags!!)… and those are just the first three examples that immediately came to mind.

Clothes and shoes, buy few, but good quality, and repair them for as long as they can be useful to you.  If still wearable, donate them to charity when you are done with them, or find another creative way to transform them (old flannel pillow-cases anyone?).

Have yard and grass clippings and don’t know what to do with them?  In a word: mulch.  Before you learn why lawns too should be reduced or replaced, get one of those mowers that just spits out the cut grass on the other end.  Leave that organic matter on the lawn, it likes it there.

Women – where our periods are concerned, it is absolutely possible to have a healthier, cleaner and also waste-free period.  I am continuously astonished at how many women are still using traditional pads and tampons, for the time being I invite you to read the www.lunapads.com website, the FAQ section as well as learning about the menstrual cups (the brand that they carry is called DivaCup).  Also, if you feel like scaring yourself silly read up on the chemicals that go into pads and tampons and how they affect your physical and sexual health (not to mention the obvious – you are obligated to throw them in the trash)!  It’s like that famous switch from PCs to Macs, no one in their right mind goes back to a PC after owning a Mac, just like no woman in her right senses goes back to conventional pads and tampons after understanding and using the ecological alternatives!  But do not fret if you’re not quite there yet (as I write this to you from a PC!)… there is time, and… everything is a process.  Again, since this is an important and interesting topic, I will dedicate a separate post to eco-periods at a later date.

Have we forgotten to cover about a dozen or so other items?  Of course.  It’s not possible to cover it all, nor is it necessary right now to do so.  The most important thing we can do is to start with those daily changes and move forwards from there.  Just like one of the Permaculture strategic principles states “start small and learn from change”, eliminating waste from our lives starts with seemingly small changes that always end up adding up.  You can do it – be an even more intense recycler (yes, I realize that soaking peanut butter containers in order to wash them before recycling is annoying!), get composting and… get creative!

The change is us.

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