The Call and Times, Column 12 – Waste Not, Want Not – Part 1

5 10 2014

(September 5, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Waste Not, Want Not – Part 1

A very close second to Spring, the beginning of Fall is one of my favorite times of the year. The Earth puts every fiber of its being, all of the energy and fertility that it has built up over the past six months, into an amazing production, one which has been celebrated since the dawn of our species – the fall harvest. But there’s something else. The changing leaves, the cooling weather, and the fruiting trees are all signs that the Earth is undergoing a deep change, figuratively tucking itself into bed for a well-deserved winter’s rest, before arising with even greater vigor next Spring.

An important question, one that our planet has answered with millions of years of ecological evolution, and one which humankind has sought to reduce down to an absurd oversimplification, is: what is to be done with the byproducts of production, the extra materials and energy, the garbage? The Fall is Earth’s subtle answer to this profound question. When the plants have finished photosynthesizing, the hardy perennials have gone dormant, and the animals have fed and stored up for winter, the Earth takes whatever is left – spent leaves and plant remains, animals’ defecation, and all sorts of organic material – and carefully breaks it all down, feeding it to microbes, fungi, and bugs, in order to start next year even better than it did last. Humans, in contrast, throw it into the garbage, to be hauled to God-knows-where and sit in limbo for hundreds of years, polluting the land, water, and air.

The modern concept of garbage, something deemed to have no possible use, to be absolutely worthless, and which would require more work to reuse or recycle than to simply throw away – this is a completely outdated mode of thinking, an idea that we can no longer rationally accept as true. We have come to realize, increasingly through resource scarcity and the effects of environmental degradation, that the Earth is not limitless. When we drill for oil, mine for metals, and too-quickly log the forests, these resources are depleted – it’s basic subtraction. But when, simultaneously, we have built an economy which relies on those “raw materials” to function and grow, a system where our own very continued existence then relies on those limited and quickly-depleting resources, there will come a point where the Earth can no longer provide what we ask of it – the definition of unsustainable. Though it may be one of the most difficult changes to make, it is therefore our responsibility – as human beings, as urban and rural farmers, as stewards of this Earth – to ditch the idea of waste, and to cast absolutely nothing off as trash.

Widespread waste collection systems first became popular in Europe in the mid-18th century. Before that, humans produced significantly less waste, most of which was natural, and could be disposed of locally and relatively sustainably. Since the conception of the idea, though, and specifically since the beginning of the last century, waste collection has grown into a municipal responsibility, and our society has gladly responded by hugely increasing the amount of solid waste we produce.

According to the EPA, in 2012, Americans generated an average 4.5 pounds of solid waste per person per day, of which about 1.5 pounds were recycled. Of that 4.5 pounds, nearly 30% was food and yard waste, a huge quantity. Another 34% was paper and wood products, of which only a fraction were recycled.

All of these materials are derived from natural processes (agriculture and forestry) which could be done sustainably, and nearly all are capable of being composted. By changing how we source these materials, throwing away less food, and returning them to nature through composting, rather than disposing of them in the municipal waste collection service, we could conceivably eliminate over 60% of our solid waste.

Another 35% of our waste consists of glass, plastics, metals, and textiles, which present more of a problem than organics. While some of these materials can be recycled, reused, or potentially composted (a few types of textiles), many cannot. The solution to these is to figure out ways to not use them in the first place.

With this discussion, as with many others, I want to make it very clear that fault does not lie with just consumers, just companies, just governments, or any group in particular. We have all contributed to this problem, and I can attest first hand to how difficult it is to eliminate all waste from one’s day-to-day life. A huge part of our waste stream is unrecyclable, uncompostable plastics and other synthetic materials, and with how common these materials are in consumer goods, it is almost impossible to avoid them as individuals in an imperfect society.

That being said, we can make positive changes together. Nature does an amazing job at generating biomass, at keeping plants, animals, fungi, and all sorts of microorganisms alive and thriving with an incredibly complex set of nutrient and energy cycles that result in a zero-waste system. By taking a look at the world around us, it is entirely possible for us to make our home and national economies alike interface sustainably with these natural cycles.

But this is a very complex subject, and there is a lot more that I need to discuss than can fit in this column. Here, we’ve discussed our society’s modern waste problem. In my next column, we can take a look at how urban farming can cast itself into a zero-waste mold, and even contribute to the solution of this problem in the rest of society. At some point in the end of the Fall, I will also write about reusing and repurposing of products and materials and buying local and used items, practices that are inseparable from the concept of reducing and eliminating waste.

Before I forget, I have some really great news. On Tuesday, the Woonsocket City Council voted 4-3 for the first passage of the chicken ordinance that they had started discussing in July. This is an amazing achievement, and I anxiously await the second vote for passage, and for this ordinance to become law. We owe a great gratitude to the city council members who worked tirelessly on this ordinance, for being so forward-thinking, and concerned with the well-being of their constituents. I will include regular updates of this ordinance.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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