toss out the idea of waste

The concept of waste is going to get us killed.

I first read the idea that waste is an illusion from Cradle to Cradle, but the idea is much older idea than that book. When I say that waste is a delusion, I mean that the idea that a society can use up goods and rid itself of their waste products without consequence is a harmful and wish-seeking fantasy. The entire planet is a system. You cannot remove yourself from it. This has been very clear to various civilizations over the millennia, so much so that I believe that this platonic ideal of waste without consequence is a thoroughly modern belief1.

We have to eliminate the idea of waste from out cultural frame. Literally everything we love about the earth depends on ridding ourselves of this addictive idea. I call it addictive because it is so easy to believe that a harm exported from your presence is a harm eliminated, but this is a lie. Loading unsorted used goods and materials onto barges to take them to distant shores is not good enough. Dumping unsorted waste into pits in our own towns is not good enough. Designing goods without thinking about where they go after they no longer work is unacceptable.

This belief is as child-like as an infant's disbelief in object permanence, and equally as wrong. What goes around does in fact come back around. Sixteenth Century Europeans and modern venture capitalists today have both been fooled by seemingly limitless horizons: the former by the western half of the globe and the latter by the digital frontier. But if we don't recognize that there is nothing, save perhaps the physical expanse of the universe itself, that is boundless.

To that end, I propose the following policies:

1. Outlaw international shipping of unsorted waste product.

  1. Allowing for this has caused a massive tragedy of the commons where wealthy countries like mine have passed the buck repeatedly to less powerful nations to deal with their so-called "waste". Check out the Khian Sea waste disposal incident for an example that made headlines not because it was waste shuffling, but because it was a particularly long saga of waste shuffling.
  2. Allow the import and export of processed and sorted waste products, because those are no longer waste by definition.

2. Begin funding research into waste recovery and processing as if it were the space race.

Because it is. This is an actual existential threat to both American stability and global geopolitics. Building a society that doesn't generate waste is fundamentally necessary to avoid global oblivion.

  1. Hire researchers and workers to begin rough sorting waste from within landfills.
  2. Fund research on chemical and metal recovery.
  3. Tax companies who have contributed to the existential problem created by throwaway goods and chemicals (looking at you Dow, Clorox, Coca-Cola) and require them to chip in to clean up the mess they literally made. Withhold profits from their shareholders. You should not be allowed to passively generate income from companies whose externalities are not being accounted for like some sick tragedy of the commons betting game.

3. Incentivize and eventually require every designed good be created with a full lifecycle plan.

  1. First incentivize the design of these plans with grants to offset the increased costs of R&D that this new paradigm requires. See Incentivized deconstruction and documentation in building for my thoughts on this as it applies to architecture.
  2. Then transition to fines for products that are found to not have lifecycles published.

4. Tax industrial waste harshly.

It is not citizen waste that is tanking the environment, it is industrial waste. It needs to be stopped or slowed to a crawl, and the market will not come to the rescue because markets incentivize hiding costs. This will be difficult both for the companies that provide goods that have historically not factored in their environmental cost, and for the citizens who purchase from them. But we cannot allow waste to go unaccounted for in our economics.

  1. It should halt a company's business operations if they are found to be negligently polluting, and companies that have been found of egregious environmental wrongdoing such as BP or Exxon should be shut down, full stop2

As Donella Meadows said, there simply are no limitless systems. Believing that there are infinite horizons has been a common tool of the wealthy and the powerful to deny the mess they leave at the world's feet, and if we don't remove it from our shared psyche soon it will boil us alive.


  1. Although #todo research and citations needed.

  2. If your counterargument to this proposal is that a worse, less-organized company will just fill Exxon's power vacuum, then you agree with me that corporations of that scale act like fiefdoms, and if they do that they are not fit for modern society.

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