The oft-repeated mantra of the ‘ecological modernist’ is that we are wasteful. They see the rise of disposable cups, packaging and plastic bags as a sign that of that wastefulness. Further, in terms of energy and climate change, they see traffic jams full of cars with only the driver inside, and lights on in buildings with no occupants in the city all night – a society squandering our resources. If only we could stop all this wastefulness and build a utopia.
I will try and persuade you that the opposite is true. We are no more wasteful than we ever have been. In fact I will take it even further, by trying to persuade you that there is no solid principle upon which to even propose a concept of waste. Shall we proceed?
It is probably easier to start with the example of money. Quite regularly I hear people say “don’t waste you money on that.” What do they mean here? If it is something you would like, however silly the reason for that is, and you are willing to sacrifice any other consumption the money would have allowed you, than it cannot be waste. Think about it. Isn’t something wasteful to one person but not another? The relative and opinionated view of waste is highlighted in the caricature below.
“The environmentally conscious Prius driver looks at the large 4WD, with no passengers except the driver, sitting in traffic and thinks “what a waste.” The man behind them both on a motorcycle thinks “what a waste for just one person.” Beside him is a cyclist who looks at them all and thinks “what a waste of petrol when you can ride.” The walker on the footpath looks at the road with the 4WD, Prius, motorcyclist and cyclist and thinks “what a waste when you can just walk.” The quite and thoughtful introvert looks out the window from the top storey of their house and thinks “what a waste – they’re all going to watch motor-racing anyway.” The neighbour across the street looks from the balcony of their small apartment to the thoughtful introvert in the window and thinks “what a waste – that whole house for one person.” Where does it end!”
See the confusion. Waste is a relative concept. What one person thinks is waste is clearly not to another person. You can imagine the most frugal individual today looks like the most wasteful one of a century ago. But surely you say, something must be waste – what about rubbish, and all that excess packaging? (Excess – compared to what I might say?)
First we’ll take a look at rubbish. Isn’t rubbish simply something that is past its useful or valuable life? Is rubbish waste? If we adopt the definition that when an object is past its useful life it is rubbish, and also waste, then everything we have ever, and will ever produce as a society is ultimately waste. Nothing lasts forever, so even our houses, buildings and streets are waste. In fact if it wasn’t for a short period of usefulness to humans at the time, all humanities great historical feats are waste – the pyramids, the Parthenon, all waste. It’s just that what we see daily as waste are those things produced for very short periods of use. Packaging has a use. The type of packing we see from the supermarket preserves food, enables easier transport and informs people of the contents. But there was plenty of other packaging along the way that we don’t see, which equally served a useful purpose. We just happen to see much of it at the end of its useful/valuable life.
Why then does it appear that there is more waste then ever? Simply because there is more production now then ever in the past. This enable many materials to be cheaper, and used for purposes of very little value - but they are still of some use.
This leaves three options:
1. Believe that waste is a useful concept – to do so you must determine an arbitrary but absolute baseline from which the relative concept of waste is determined.
2. Believe waste is a concept but not particularly useful - that it describes a good at the end of its useful life, in which case everything humanity has ever produced is waste, or
3. Believe the concept of waste has no underlying foundation, and is therefore useless.
Personally I am would regard myself as one of the leaders of the third group. I would say the popularity of waste as a concept in environmental circles is in fact slowing progress on environment issues, as it distracts from the core problems.