Thursday, July 31, 2008

Illusions of waste – a distraction for the masses

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 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 your 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, then 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 quiet 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 can 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 than ever in the past. This enables many materials to be cheaper, and used for purposes with less value - but these purposes are generally for some positively-valued 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 environmental issues, as it distracts from the core problems of which natural resources we will allow to enter our produciton system, how much of them, and where to but all produced objects at the end of their life.

Thoughts anyone?


  1. I think you need to look at the definition of waste a little more...

    I think the following needs to be taken into account:

    1) Waste is what can't be re-used. i.e. horse poo isn't really waste as it makes great fertiliser - for a great book on this topic read

    2) Waste is a by-product of consumption. There are only finite resources on the planet to consume... Therefore a hummer is "wasteful" i.e.The fuel and exhaust is not usefully recycled

    3) I also get the feeling equity might apply here as well. The driver of the hummer is "wasting" resources that someone else may have put to more use. i.e. hungry person buying food...

    I think a baseline can be found!


  2. Try this link instead:

  3. The problem is that recycling does not actually decrease demand for raw materials - I will address this in another post.

    Also, if I go by your first definition, then there is no waste - plastic, cardboard, packaging, everything - can be reused if we had the inclination to collect it and store it until a use arose.

    On your second point, waste is not a by-product - it is a product itself. Why is the fuel used by a hummer wasteful when the fuel used by a scooter is not? Why is the scooter itself not waste? Isn't the scooter itself simply a by-product of the consumption of travel? (If by by-product you mean something produced which was not the ultimate purpose - which leads to some serious definitional issues)

    On the equity issue - if the driver of the hummer has the resources (read money) to drive it why shoudn't he? He is going to spend the money on something anyway. Who is to say that buying a fancy car and driving it is any more wasteful than spending it flying around the world doing aid work? He can do whatever makes him happy.

  4. The concept of waste exists because it does. I'm pretty confident you can argue away the meanings of many definitions, but ultimately it is a relative concept (along with most of life apart from mathematics maybe?).

    A thought experiment. I have two cars identical in every way but fuel consumption. To use the less efficient is wasting fuel... surely there is a better way to use that 'wasted' fuel/$.

    The definition of poverty is relative as well. You can be below the poverty line in Aus but if you took your life and possessions and landed yourself in Sudan you would be looking pretty good.

    In a way I get the feeling your pointing towards nothing mattering because if you step back far enough everything is irrelevant. With all these concepts a relative and accessible time period has to be established, otherwise you either end up depressed, irrelevant, anarchic or amoral.

    But hey maybe life is that carefree! And we are all too burdened with a sense of duty and sense of right that hasn't been questioned enough. Is that how the rich and powerful race ahead of the pack?

  5. Dan. I'm glad someone is keen to debate. Your thought experiment opens up many quite interesting issues.

    First, if the cars are truly identical, why would anyone buy the less efficient one? Each car has some quality, whether is is the perceived quality, the size, off road ability, speed, comfort, style. If two were identical in all respects the less efficient one would not sell.

    So to say that it is a waste, you need to make a value judgment about what any of these qualities is worth. Why can't one person value style highly, and spend there money on this (indirectly through fuel consumption). Remember, they have to spend their money on something, and if they are spending in more fuel and a bigger car, they are spending a lot less elsewhere.

    I also agree that everything is relative and I could argue away any definition. But my point is that the definition is value laden, and thus not very helpful to the environmental cause.

    Pollution for example is also value laden. We have to simply make a call based on scientific evidence about what is 'proven' to be harmful, and use absolute physical measures to determine a relative baseline to which we measure pollution. Air pollution standards are based on fairly arbitrary measures of parts per million of some specific element.

    Also, noise pollution is a good example. One household might love living next to a stadium and hearing the crowd during matches, while another hates it. Who is to say which is 'right'?

    There are of course social benchmarks that can be used, but these too face issues when trying to elicit peoples preferences and aggregating them to some social preference. I might address this in another post.