Back during the boom times in Silicon Valley, a co-work of my husbands had decided to retire early. He and his wife looked over their finances, and figured that if they were committed to living simply, and if they moved to a less expensive part of the world, they might be able to make it work. We went to visit them a number of times in their new life, and they became sort of role models for us. First of all, they were the most wonderful hosts. Incredibly gracious, amazing cooks. The house was decorated simply with an elegant yet whimsical aesthetic. They had a circle of chairs that included all sizes and shapes, so that a child of any size could find a place in the circle, as could a stuffed doll or friend. They were both writers, so bits of poetry had been pinned to the walls, and hand written lines penned in large letters across doorways. Life for them was reading, writing, friends, and savoring beauty. We’d talk for hours over a cup of coffee or home made scone, and one thing we always talked about was the quest for simple living. It was from these friends that we first heard Ben Franklin’s words:
Use it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Or do without.
These words were so different from everything we were hearing in the land of the inflated tech-bubble. My husband and I spent the 8 hour car ride home repeating it to ourselves like a mantra.
As a child my parents always modeled for me a careful use of resources, but at the time it had just seemed like one of those crazy parent things. Adults would say things like “Waste Not Want Not” but when I was a little girl this phrase was confusing to me. How could not wasting things keep you from not wanting things? I didn’t realize that in the older use of the word “want” it meant to “to be needy or destitute.”
The wisdom of that phrase takes on a whole new layer of meaning as we think about the kinds of ecological issues coming to a head for the generations living today, and the generations to follow. If you have been out shopping this holiday season, it is not hard to see the waste, and to imagine the “want” it could lead to in our eco-system. If we keep clear cutting forests to make paper for catalogues, our children and their children will want. We can’t afford that kind of waste.
Think about your typical exchange of presents. The shiny bleached wrapping paper is ripped off the hermetically plastic shell that protects the un-recyclable personal electronics that have a 6 month obsolescence cycle. You know those “blister packages” that big retailers hang on hooks to make a product look bigger and to make it harder to steal, and consequently impossible to open once you buy them? Often it seems like the package is 8 times larger than the product! Now I find out those blister packs are often made of PVC, the most one of the most toxic plastics. (1) Packaging is the largest part of US solid waste – 32%. As of 2000 just over of third of that was being recycled. When we celebrated holidays in California, where the city gives you a waste can of a fixed size, Some years we can’t even fit all our trash in the can and had to wait a couple weeks before it all could be taken away.
But the products themselves are also wasteful. My first PDA broke after just a year. I went to replace it, and the new model required had all new power configurations, and required a new set of cords to recharge and sync with the computer. My cell phone fell in the sink, and since in the 4 months I had own it my phone had become obsolete, I had to buy a new model and the new model had a new jack, which required a new head set, new outlet charger and new car charger. I have a whole drawer at home of perfectly good cords from electronics I no longer own. Waste is built into this industry.
As part of an environmental leadership class I took few years ago, we met with the green team from a Silicon Valley company. They explained proudly about their composting program in their lunchroom, and green building plans. I took a designer aside and said “wouldn’t the most important thing you could do be to design a product that lasts, that is not disposable?” He looked blankly at me before taking out the prototype of the latest and greatest, showing how one could Google a local pizza place from one’s phone, see a map of the area and then click the icon to call them and order pizza. I had thought the industry was consciously planning obsolescence, but this designer at least felt he was simply responding to the needs of consumers who demand new products that are smaller and faster and look really cool. The industry does not believe there is a market for electronics that last. They don’t understand that some of us are willing to use a product that is a few years old, and would pay a little more for something that would last.
Because the computers and phones and ipods that are designed to be updated every year or so have to go somewhere when we throw them “away.” And where is “away” exactly? When I had the good fortune to hear Sheila Davis, Executive Director of Silicon Valley Toxics, give a lecture about the recyclablitly of computers and other consumer electronics, she explained are created to be disposable, and to toxic to go in landfill. There was not thought put into how the parts would be recycled, so the plastic cases are not made to be opened, and otherwise recycled materials are coated with non-recyclable materials to turn both into trash. It was determined that he process of smashing open the shells with a sledgehammer was to dangerous for Americans, so now “recycled” can mean shipped to china to a village where children walk bare footed over a pile of our electronics pulling out the small bits of copper or other valuable metal while the plastic bodies become part of the landscape. (2) While I have been rolling my eyes at all the adds for luxury products on TV the last few weeks, I was happy to see what I believe is the first recyclable laptop body now coming out from apple. My partner astutely noticed that they make no claims about what’s inside the body. And while I acknowledge there is a long way to go, I am thrilled that someone has taken this first step.
This is just one example of an emergent idea: “extended producer responsibility.” Some manufacturers are taking it on themselves to think about what happens to product and packaging after it leaves the factory, but more and more governments are using this concept in legislation. It is now a state law in California that anyone who sells cell phones ore reusable batteries must take them back. The hope is that if producers realize they are going to be responsible down the line, perhaps in the very design process of a product and the product packaging the producer will be motivated to think about what happens to the product after it leaves the warehouse.
At this time of ecological crisis, we want to believe our grandmother’s wisdom: if we could really “waste not” would the plant be able to sustain a population of this size of 7 generations? As David Imhoff says in his book Paper or Plastic “The proper answer to the paper/plastic conundrum is still “neither.” Eliminate, reduce, refill and recycle as much as possible. ” (3) The emerging Zero Waste is the 21st century version of what our grandmothers new. When Zero Waste guru Gary Liss lectured in Silicon Valley he introduced the concept that all discarded materials are resources. Is it possible? Mother Nature’s model is zero waste; in an undisturbed forest all waste is food. The International Zero Waste movement has taken to saying “zero waste or darn close” and is asking manufacturers all over the world right now to adopt their current goal, which is that no more than %10 of solid waste go to landfill, and no waste is processed in facilities that are hotter than ambient organic temperatures (about 200 degrees) (4) 3 dozen municipalities in the United States have adopted these goals and standards.
When a cherry tree drops its blossoms all over the ground, we don’t think of this as waste, because we know these blossoms will replenish the soil and provide nutrients of the surrounding environment. When the tree finally dies every bit of it will be used in some way by some other creature. William McDonough calls this “Cradle to Cradle” thinking . (5) On the other hand the one-way path of most manufactured things from factory to house to landfill is a cradle to grave thinking. Could we ever be as efficient as the trees in our human manufacturing? To do that we would have to consider this from the very first moment of product design to participate in a cradle to cradle life cycle.
McDonough and Braungart notice that whereas an apple blossom will become part of the earth’s natural process to turn waste into food, A plastic water bottle does not function the same way. They have “conceived as the Earth’s two discrete metabolisms, the biosphere- the cycles of nature – and the technosphere- the cycles of industry.” They postulate that “Synthetic materials, chemicals, metals and durable goods are part of the technical metabolism; they can be designed to circulate within closed-loop industrial cycles, in effect, providing “food” for the technosphere.” Some companies are already working towards this goal. Milliken Collins and Aikman don’t sell carpet, they lease it to customers so that when it wears out, the manufacturer can reuse the material in new carpets. This cradle to cradle thinking also being done in the Biological metabolism. Desightex has created a carpet that is so non-toxic that it can be used as mulch when it is done being a carpet. It turns out the process they have designed is so clean that when they tested the water coming out of the mill they found that it was as clean as the water going in – the manufacturing process itself was filtering the water. Now some carpets contain PVC and heavy metals, which cannot be truly “recycled” and are shredded and blended into what McDonough and Braungart call “Downcycled material” because they are no longer able to be used at their highest use. But a new fiber produced by BASF called Savant is made from an infinitely recyclable nylon fiber that can be “upcycled” instead of “downcycled.”
What does it mean to put something to its highest use? Let’s take the life of a glass jar. The highest and best use for that is as a jar to store stuff. The least wasteful thing we can do with a jar is to re-use it. This is why you always find bulk foods in eco-friendly stores. You don’t need a new glass jar every time you buy maple syrup, the best highest use for a jar is to fill it again and again until it finally breaks. Or return it; the average life of a returnable glass bottle is 5-10 years with 5 fillings per year. (6) The next highest use might be to use the jar or the broken pieces to make something else- like art, or building materials. If there were no other use for a broken jar, then it could be recycled to make new glass jars. Even when it finally has to be recycled it saves ¼ to 1/3 of the energy over making new glass.
Here’s the hopeful part. Ben Franklin’s advice might just be a path through the hard times, both economically and ecologically. A friend of mine quit her jobs a few years back to be a full time mom. She said she found it was almost a full time job making all the food from scratch, buying things on consignment, and using her time to help her live more simply but that by doing so she could make up the full time salary they had lost. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got at least one shelf of books I have not yet read, and several more of favorite books I haven’t read in at least a decade. We’ve got a book swap shelf in the social hall, and a fabulous free library down the street from my house. I think I could read for the rest of my life without ever chopping down another tree for paper pulp. For the past few decades the ecological movement has been one for elite. We’ve all gulped at the prices of the organic foods at the Wegman’s. My hope is that in this economic downturn we will remember that Gramma had it right. You don’t have to buy a Prius to be green. Almost 30% of the total Carbon Output in the life of a car comes from the manufacturing process . (7) Keeping an old car running well is green too. When we can no longer afford the organic tomatoes at he store, it’s time to grow them in our backyard.
“Waste Not” or “Zero Waste” or “Cradle to Cradle” are different ways of thinking about a model for living that ask for a lot of creativity within our waste-filled culture. It’s time for neighbors to teach neighbors about how to can and preserve food, how to sew and alter our own clothes. At a time when so many are worried about money, we can feel proud every time we use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.
Perhaps this will be silver lining of this economic downturn. Many common sense ways or reducing waste were practiced by our grandparents or parents during the depression. One of the master knitters I have known said each winter she would unravel old knitting to have a fresh look for the new year, or larger clothes for the kids as they grew. And perhaps the silver lining of under-employment is that if we don’t have to work 60 hours a week, we have time to cook our own food, which is cheaper and uses less packaging than buying prepared foods. We can make some of our own holiday gifts and decorations. My mom, god bless her, tried to address the waste of Christmas wrapping paper; she sewed a set of re-usable gift bags one year when I was little and they have been circulating around our family every since. But we know that it is equally probable that in a time of crisis we will excuse ourselves from our ecological responsibilities as if the economic and the ecological were not one at their core. We are not going to change our culture without an act of shared will, and it is not going to happen over night.
Such a change will effect not only our thinking process, but what we value, and where we find beauty and worth. I went to Re-Craft sale where only vendors who were re-using materials could exhibit their holiday crafts. The creativity displayed there was tremendous; old sweaters felted and made into trendy handbags, a wind chime made from antique spoons rolled flat, old white shirt buttons woven into necklaces. We used to roll our eyes at my dad’s use of Sunday comics to wrap gifts, but viewed through the lens of creative reuse, it is beautiful. I admit I am not ready to be zero waste this holiday season, but I challenge each of us to think about the impact of the gifts we give, the food, the decorations, the things we buy or make. Let’s show our love this season not only for our friends and family, but for our earth, and for all the generations who will follow so that they will never want.
(1) Imhoff, Dania Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World. p. 34
(3) Imhoff, Dania Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World. p. 13
(4) Zero Waste International Alliance http://www.zwia.org/standards.html
(5) William McDonough and Michael Braungart “The Extravagant Gesture: Nature, Design, and the Transformation of Human Industry” from Sustainable Planet p. 13-32.
(6) Imhoff, Dania Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World. p. 16.