In my hometown of Johnstown, PA, a famous spring ritual takes place. Its known as “spring cleanup” week. This is one week a year where the garbage company allows you to put out anything and everything on the curb to get rid of it. People end up with mounds and heaps of crap on the side of the road: TVs, appliances, furniture, boxes of junk, more and more boxes and bags, piles and piles of stuff. Part of the problem with this practice surrounds the consumption of stuff (a topic I addressed last year in this blog here) but another problem is the waste mindset.
In permaculture design, a number of design principles help us design and enact better living spaces of all kinds. Many who practice permaculture also see these as mantras for living. From Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability the mantra about waste is simple: “produce no waste.” As with the other permaculture principles, I’ve used this as a theme for my AODA discursive meditations, and I have worked at various points to bring this to the center of mindful and conscious living and enact permanent change within my own life. So today we are going to talk through the issue of “waste” and the work towards disposing of the disposable mindset! This blog will examine the waste mindset both from the outer and inner perspectives and conclude with some suggestions for reducing or entirely eliminating waste.
I’d like to talk about waste using the framing of the hermetic magical adage as above, so below, as within, so without (or, more directly, “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing”). It is through this principle that we can not only deeply understand the effects of waste in our lives and also recognize some solutions for eliminating waste with the goal of living more earth-based, regenerative lives.
The Outer Problem of “Waste”
We’ll start exploring the “outer” problem of waste, that is, waste in our landscapes and lives. Waste streams, completely non-existent in nature, are ever-present in modern America (and truthfully, the consumerist model depends on waste streams to encourage everlasting consumption of new products and goods and a “waste industry” based on these systems). Yes, waste today is intentional; it is a matter of design. We think of it as a bi-product of living, but that’s not really the case. Consumerism was designed so that everything is disposable and designed with “planned obsolescence” or the idea that a produce is planned to automatically fail after a certain period of time. Other kinds of waste are simply “generated” as part of doing business or living, and there is no impetus to change this at present. The billions of plastic cups that are waste generated by the airline industry daily, for example, or businesses that serve food in disposable containers. And since waste collection and processing itself is an industry, there is little impetus to change it from a larger collective standpoint.
The world is currently drowning in waste. From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to Kerug K-Kup that is non-recyclable and consumed in almost every office and one in three homes in the USA, to food waste (on the order of millions per year –up to 40% of the total food produced here in the USA), to waste water from fracking, who farmers now are putting on their crops (the problem is such that California is considering labeling crops grown with fracking wastewater). The list goes on and on. And its not just America–we have a waste problem most industrialized societies globally. Waste accumulates in the ocean, micro-beads from face scrubbers end up inside fish and then back on your plate, the waterways are full of toxins and pesticides. Waste in the form of agricultural runoff ends up creating algae blooms and dead zones thousands of miles across. Waste and debris is even up in orbit surrounding our planet–this is how bad our waste problem has become. We have waste streams that are invisible to us–the waste in manufacturing processes are unknown because they are proprietary–but when you buy that product, you buy the waste stream of that product. I’m a fan of science fiction, and when you really think about it, this paragraph reads like the start to some dystopian novel. But its not, its here, right now, and present.
Outer waste goes well beyond just stuff. We have wasted energy–everything from heat leaking from our houses in winter to wasted clean water running down our drains and into our municipal sewage systems. We have wasted time in front of the various screens of our lives and wasted potential while housed within the boxes that we inhabit. We have so much waste in our lives that its difficult to wrap one’s head around it.
You might say, more than anything else, this culture produces waste.
If we return to the hermetical principle that is helping frame this blog post–we can see a very serious problem here. Not only are we destroying our planet with pollution and waste, but we are in essence destroying our inner worlds as well. Since what is reflected on one level of reality (the physical) happens on other levels (the mental, the emotional), the garbage we have in our lives is not just staying there–its working on us both within and without.
For a simple example of this many of us have probably experienced, let’s take a look at cooking. Consider the difference in trying to cook dinner in a messy kitchen with excess garbage, grime, and stinky dishes piled up in the sink vs. a clean kitchen where everything is in order. Which leads to a healthy state of mind? Which leads to the better meal? The same example works when thinking about relaxing for a nice cup of tea and a good book at the end of a long day–can you fully relax when your house is trashed with garbage piled up around you, or do you feel better when its clean? Could you take a vacation and stay next to a factory polluting a river or would you prefer to be in a cabin somewhere in the woods?
These simple examples illustrate this point nicely–what is in our environments becomes part of what is reflected within. What is reflected in our inner realities when we living in a world piling up with garbage, pollution and waste? These certainly aren’t the questions you’ll see on mainstream discussions of waste, but this magical perspective is, I think, important to consider.
The Inner Problem of Waste
Just as our outer world impacts our inner world, what is within us also reflects outward. It is in our inner world where the unconscious behaviors of waste generation lie and are generated. And it is within that we can raise our awareness, be mindful of our actions, and begin to shift towards producing less or no waste.
Throwing “away” is a mindset and a set of parallel behaviors so ingrained, at least in the US, that they are at first quite difficult to even recognize, much less overcome. I recently had to travel by plane for my work (a wasteful activity), and, since I am ever mindful of waste streams, I carefully observed the endless waste streams on the airplane and airport–plastic cups come out, drinks are consumed, plastic cups and paper and various other “waste” is collected and whisked off so quickly. These actions of disposal are so embedded, so thoughtless, that they happen automatically. Most people hardly realized they were throwing things away.
As a learning researcher, I understand social conditioning quite well–and automatic behaviors are the strongest kind, they are the kind that you repeat in over and over again and are extremely difficult to recondition. You devote very little to no mental resources to engage in these behaviors. Social conditioning for waste in a throw-away society is so pervasive that a few things happen. On the extreme end, we simply buy and throw things away without thinking about it (in the same way people mow their lawns without thinking about it, or turn on the TV without thinking about it, etc.) Even if someone has conscious awareness, however, social conditioning still functions via Freud’s “herd instinct.” People will often “follow the herd” rather than be ostracized from it by deviating in their behavior. Its not just simple peer pressure, but the idea that deviance in behavior leads to isolation. And since we are social creatures, this can be a real issue for making change (I’ll also mention there is great value in deviance, but that’s a subject for another post).
How is this automatic behavior triggered with regards to waste? Let’s take a few quick examples. If you have a problem, what is typically the first thing you do? Buy something to fix that problem. The nature of the problem is hardly important: too much stuff = purchasing home organizers rather than avoid the clutter to begin with; something breaks = purchase something new and throw away the old; mental problem = buy some drugs or therapy; the list goes on and on. Its automatically ingrained within each of us to do these things, because, well, that’s just how things are done here. If you want a drink, you don’t even think about the waste generated with that drink. You just drink it, throw away the cup, and go along your way–no big deal. And because there is so much waste being generated all around us at every given moment with these consumptive behaviors, to think about it requires a great deal of mental energy that most people simply don’t have.
Again returning to our hermetic magical adage, we might think about the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.” Many minds are drowning in detritus at the moment (from television, advertising, politics, smartphones, etc.). If this is the state of our minds, why wouldn’t we be filling the world with the same detritus? If our inner world is trashed, it becomes so much easier, I believe, to accept waste and trash in our outer world.
(I do realize that some readers may point out the “chicken and egg” issue happening here with regrades to my discussion of magic–but I think wanting to assign causality in either direction is a mistake–and the causality assumption is not present in the adage. Our inner and outer worlds are always informing and influencing each other; the relationship goes both ways).
A final inner issue with waste within is the terminology we hold in our minds. My town tells me its picking up my yard waste and I should leave it on the corner like any other trash. Even the bags you can get to put your leaves in are labeled yard waste or leaf litter. But what they are actually referring to are the nutrients and carbon the trees are dropping to create a rich layer of hummus for more life to grow. That stuff isn’t waste, its part of nature’s perfect system–I call it a resource, and eagerly seek it out each fall for my garden. But when it is framed as waste, we see it only as thus. What about our own urine and feces, which is considered human waste and treated as such (we flush it away). For thousands of years, urine and feces were considered resources–if treated properly feces becomes rich soil and urine can be used to provide nitrogen for our plants to grow (see the Humanure Handbook and Liquid Gold books). The term disposable implies that we can get rid of it, to send it away–but as my experiences worm composting several years ago illustrates, this is simply not true. The problem with language like garbage, waste, dispose, and throw away is that in our minds we hold these words to be true–we believe the meanings that have been constructed around them. When something is labeled with these words, its easy to engage in the associated behavior. These concepts are given to us by consumerist society–and its in all of our best interest, and in the best interest of all life, to question them and to come up with new terms.
Shifting away from the “waste” mindset.
The problem of waste is a problem both within and without–in our minds, in our language, and in our the design of the systems in which we live. Because everything is designed as disposable, it takes considerable effort to dispose of what really needs thrown out, that is, the disposable mindset. So a great part of this shift must take place in the mind: how can I reuse this? How can I not participate in this waste stream system? How can I, at minimum, recycle this? Now I’m going to talk about some ways of breaking these patterns and helping us shift out of the disposable mindset.
Mental Decluttering. As waste is a product of both inner and outer worlds, I want to start by suggesting that decluttering and sharpening the mind is a great way of manifesting less waste in your life externally. Meditation is the best kind of decluttering practice I know, although regular daily magical practices (like the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual or OBOD’s Light Body exercise) also pack a nice punch. The idea here is that if your life is full of wasteful patterns, eliminating some of those wasteful patterns internally will help you get the rest of the waste in order.
The other piece to mental decluttering is also monitoring what comes in–eliminating the wasteful chatter of various screens, in particular, is an exceedingly useful practice. This has the added benefit of reducing wasted time and bringing creativity back into one’s life–and yes, I speak from firsthand experience!
Waste Monitoring. To begin working on the outer world, I would suggest some waste monitoring activities. A good one to start with is one I assigned my students when I was teaching an interdisciplinary research methods class with a sustainability theme: for one week, try to track all of your waste. Track every time you get a throw-away cup, a take-out box, a pen that’s out of ink. What are you putting on the curb? Look at every item you throw away in the trash. Look at any waste produced by your family or workplace (the left-over food that gets thrown away; the waste of office paper, boxes, handouts that don’t get used, pens and pencils, packaging from shipped items, plastic in the trash bins, etc). Look in the trash bins–see what other people are throwing out. Pay special attention to if someone is moving out or retiring and how much stuff they want to unload. You will be appalled–even if you thought you were managing your waste streams effectively. Write every bit of it down (one of the things we know from behavioral research is the act of writing something down helps shift behavior because it makes us more conscious). I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the transformative aspects of this–just doing this practice raises your awareness about waste.
Repurposing other people’s waste. To return to the “spring cleanup” ritual I began with, I want to talk about the trash-picking counter culture. On the positive side to this yearly ritual, a whole counter-culture arises with regards to this waste stream: people, often in old pickup trucks and rusty vans–go out “junking” or “trash picking” through the piles. I, too, go out when I have the opportunity as I hate to see so much waste. So while some of the stuff on the curb ends up in the landfill, much is also reused. One should, after all, never be embarrassed to dig through someone’ else’s trash–its the person who is throwing good things away that should be ashamed of their behavior. I have salvaged rakes, pots, spades, canning jars, beads, paint brushes, tools, solid wood end tables, yard furniture, cardboard boxes for sheet mulching, lamps, rugs, grills, windows for cold frames, a small boat (yes, for real), and a working refrigerator–all from the side of the road. At first, I was nervous to dig in other people’s garbage, but I realized that that, too, was something my culture had given me that wasn’t my own feeling–so now, I freely do so!
Avoiding Excess Waste in Your Own Life. I have found that excess waste comes from a few sources–buying crappy stuff that quickly wears out (solved by learninghttps://thedruidsgarden.com/2015/09/16/soil-regeneration-lawn-reclamation-creating-a-sheet-mulch-bed-from-seedy-garden-weeds/ how to mend, also by purchasing better products), take-out containers (easily solved by bringing your own), and excess gifts. I wrote a post a while back about how to deal with excess stuff, and I have some good suggestions there! In a nutshell, its worth trying to train friends and family not to bring any excess stuff into your life that is unwelcome.
Composting. If you aren’t already doing so, composting is a great way to begin to address that 40% food waste (and fallen leaves, etc) that we have in our culture. I have information on indoor (vermicomposting) and outdoor composting. And if you have gerbils, I have a post on using gerbils for composting; and a post on chickens and composting. And you can compost using sheet mulching techniques to setup new garden beds! Something for everyone!
The Closed Loop System. With the addition of other sustainable living strategies, I think the ultimate goal is to work towards a closed-loop system, that is a system that is truly sustainable. Closed loop systems mean that everything cycles through perfectly without any waste–a forest is such an example. Everything that in inside the forest is reused and recycled continuously. Indigenous cultures are well worth studying here for they provide the best examples. Every step we take towards cycling nutrients and materials, however, is a good one.
Larger Action. We only have a small amount of individual control over waste streams, so this is where awareness raising, information gathering, and community action come in. By learning about what waste steams flow through (and into) one’s community or workplace, we can take action, raise awareness, repurpose waste, and generally make our communities better places to inhabit. Its surprising how small initiatives make big differences, both for people’s consciousness and in actual action.
When you begin to shift your mindset, you will see how trash picking, upcycling, composting, closed-loop systems, mental decluttering, and other forms of creative repurposing require just that–creative, out of the box thinking. It becomes a game you can play with yourself and your surroundings: how can you put X item to another use? What’s in your neighbor’s trash heap this week, and how can you put it to use? And how can you reduce the size of your own waste pile? How can the various waste streams in your life become resources that reused and adapted? So by all means, let the awen flow!