Radical Reduction of Waste
Robin Winkler

As you know, regulations have recently taken effect in Taiwan that are designed to facilitate waste reduction.

You may also have heard the expression “there is no such thing as waste in nature,” which is sometimes stated “waste equals food,” a principle that all of us learned in elementary school when we looked at the interactions among worms, soil, bacteria, birds, plants and other beings that are embedded in a system of what seems to be perpetual motion (it has been 4.5 billion years in the making – or one could say 15 billion years, the estimated ages of the Earth and the Universe, respectively).

And many of you have heard the axiomatic and common statements of ecologists: “humans are a part of nature along with all the other ten-thousand beings”.

We all think of “nature” as something “good,” so since humans are a part of nature, and in nature there is no waste, why would anyone support the idea that we should reduce waste? This might be a little confusing.

Perhaps a look at some basic concepts will help to make sense of this. First, while we humans are a part of and inextricably tied to our surroundings, as do all other beings (trees, rocks, insects etc.), we possess species-specific characteristics. This is part of the idea of “diversity”: no two individuals (whether humans, trees, cockroaches, snow flakes, or grains of sand) are identical. And this is even more obvious when comparing species.

While every individual of every species shares the quality of engaging in activities to 1) sustain itself as an individual, and 2) to perpetuate the species, each has defining characteristics. What those defining characteristics are, are constantly being studied, and we humans are constantly redefining and revising our conclusions about the characteristics of our own and other species.

If you accept that there is a God (Buddha, the lord Jesus, Mohammed, Tudigong, the Creator, a series of gods, whatever), you can probably also accept the premise that humans do not completely know anything. That is to say, we can only observe, and then act upon our accumulation of observations, reflections and experiences. Only God knows, and indeed, and thankfully, God does work in mysterious ways. That godly mystery and limitless human potential (ie, the gap between what we do know and what God knows) are in my view, two of the basic elements that make life so interesting and exciting.

Although we can never completely know anything, this does not mean that we do not act as if we do know. We have to act as if we do know, for otherwise, we would be immobile. Observations, reflections and experience (accumulated by ourselves or passed down or along from our forbearers and the community) are what guide our actions, and our actions are the perceivable manifestations of what we think we know is appropriate. Again, only God knows, and sorry to say for those who don’t really like the mystery, and feel that they need more certainty in life, we humans will never know what is appropriate. We are constantly refining our perceptions and our actions through a continuous feedback loop fueled by additional observations, reflections and experiences.

Now back to the discussion of garbage and waste.

At this juncture in the evolution of humans we can make some generalizations about what distinguishes us from other species. One human characteristic, which with a fair degree of certainty we can say is unique to the species, is our ability to create waste that is not food; waste that is not food for our own species, nor for any other species or habitat.(1) In fact we humans have taken this ability further such that we create waste that is toxic for ourselves, a phenomena that not unique in nature. But what is unique is that this waste is not useable for any known species or habitat within any reasonable parameters of time or “return on investment”.

While we can create non-useable and toxic waste, having the ability to create non-useable and toxic waste should not be confused with assigning these wasting activities and abilities as being a defining characteristic of humans. The evidence clearly shows that this characteristic is a very recent development, is not a genetic flaw, and is nowhere close to being universal among cultures throughout the world. We have evidence reaching back hundreds of thousands of years to show that while people always produced garbage, the garbage would decompose within a reasonable period of time, thus becoming “food” for the soil or for other beings. A little more recently and closer to home, we can look at how rice dumplings are wrapped up in Taiwan, observe the rice-cooking and storage containers made of bamboo, or just think a moment and come up with countless other examples around the country, particularly among indigenous, Hakka and other communities that have been relatively undisturbed by the likes of 7-11, Burger King and Taiwan’s petrochemical industry.

So let’s not resign ourselves to accepting statements like, “there’s nothing we can do, humans are just wasteful, or thoughtless, or selfish.” These characteristics exist, but they are not part of our genetic programming. History suggests the opposite: we are programmed for survival, and we are programmed for coexistence with all those beings that have been evolving along with or long before us.

So what about our own actions and the actions of those within our sphere of influence – colleagues, clients, family, community, students, teachers, and others with whom we interact every day?

Being alive means we will consume. We can, however, still make choices as to what and how we consume. I believe that we should all take inventory of our consumptive habits (including personal and firm related) and start doing everything we can do reduce the consumption of anything that encourages, facilitates or results in the direct or indirect creation of waste that is clearly not food for other beings or habitats.

Let me begin with myself for illustrative purposes. (2) Whenever possible, (3) I will walk to work thus cutting down the portion of petroleum necessary to transport me if I (in descending order of waste generating impact) drive a car (I don’t own a car anyway), take a cab, ride the metro or a bus, or ride a bicycle (oil for the moving parts). I will continue to live without a television (going on two years) and air-conditioning (going on five) in my home, use natural or no light whenever possible (including going to bed early and getting up with the sun), use the stairs instead of the elevator to avoid supporting Taiwan Power’s pollution of Taiwan’s air, contribution to global warming, building of nuclear power plants, and generation of unimaginably toxic waste. I will cut down my use of cell phones, computers, digital cameras and all other electronic equipment, the manufacture of which on average results in 8,000 times its weight in waste generation, (4) and with the use of which I facilitate social disruption and environmental devastation wrought by international companies around the world (encouraging young and old to distance themselves with telecommunications, mining of coltan to extend battery life, and other minerals that are destroying gorilla habitat in Africa etc etc), eating organic, vegan and locally grown foods to lessen the financial encouragement to foreign agribusiness giants, fast food and junk food businesses, and the highly subsidized shipping and transportation industries.

I will stop buying new books, new clothes or anything where I have not made a serious and sincere effort to determine whether I can do without, or if not, whether there is not something used available to fulfill the considered need. I will not use credit cards, and will pay by cash to avoid supporting the banks, investment houses and other institutions that thrive on exploitation of human compassion, insecurity and weakness. For the same reason I will not take out any insurance policies other than those mandated by law.

To avoid supporting businesses that put earnings, cost reductions and profits ahead of any sense responsibility to the community, human and otherwise, I will compost all leftover food, or only patronize restaurants that do the same, will attempt to ensure that all suppliers, colleagues, and clients of the firm have adopted strong programs directed at reducing waste. I will avoid using any products or materials that are newly produced, or that are produced from other materials but with high energy or added product consumption (this includes many recycled products), unless I absolutely need the product and there are no less impactful alternatives.

This is just a beginning. The list will go on and I may hardly succeed at even a fraction of the goals. But before you dismiss these actions with “impossible,” “irrational,” “idealistic” “no way” or any other of the countless words and phrases often used to marginalize suggestions with which one does not agree, please consider my recent exchange with the deputy administrator of the EPA when discussing ways to solve environmental issues on which we apparently agree on the objective but not the methods.

Government official: I can’t do that; it would be political suicide.

Me: You obviously know politics and the statistical probability of political suicide much better than we. We are not asking you to commit such an act. We are not even asking you to do anything specific other than to consider this proposal as a possible solution, as a means of accomplishing that upon which we all agree. If what we are suggesting is prima facie illegal or has some other flaw other than it may be disagreeable to some, then please tell us and we will try to make the adjustments to address your concerns. But if you and we really do agree on the premise (e.g., it would be a good idea not to build this highway, this power plant, this artificial lake or dam) wouldn’t it be more conducive to reaching a resolution acceptable to all if we didn’t impose any “preconditions” but rather agree that any solution is possible? For if we do not consider one option because of the belief that it is impossible or will lead to “political suicide,” we can be certain of only one thing: we will have reduced our options.

Not only is what I am proposing potentially good for the earth, many of the activities, actions, inactions are good for our physical, mental and spiritual health, and for the health of our community. Results can be immediate in the form of an alertness, a sense of participation in the community, and an enhanced sense of self esteem as you make substantive contributions to the well being of our community, our ancestors and our future generations.

How does this play out in an office? Each of us takes inventory and then starts asking questions: How can we reduce waste that feeds no one but the companies paid to collect garbage, run landfills or put dioxins in the air by operating incinerators? Do we need to print that, do we need to buy new equipment, do we need to subscribe to that magazine (and if we decide we really do need the magazine, perhaps we can refuse delivery if it comes wrapped in plastic – or at least tell them of our decision to cancel the subscription unless they stop wrapping it in plastic)? Do we need all the lights on, is there a substitute for air conditioning, can we use reusable chopsticks, take our own containers to the buffets to put our lunches in, carry a cup with us and refuse anything that comes in paper and plastic. Can we stop patronizing foreign businesses (they take the money offshore), stop patronizing 7-11s, hypermarts, Watson’s, and other chain stores (they destroy diversity among businesses), stop patronizing fast food sellers? Are we ensuring that all of our used materials have no more life before sending them to the garbage?

The key to this is to cut down on consumption. It is very, very simple. I hope that all of us will join in this.

There are also some potentially very interesting and creative opportunities to learn gardening. Wouldn’t it be nice for children to have a nice, safe place to spend their time learning about what plants, insects, birds and other creatures might flourish in the city?

So this is my invitation to all of you to join us in reducing the amount of waste and serious impact we have on our planet, while at the same time to build something quite special that will aid the planet’s healing, something based on God’s plans, as mysterious as they may be.

1. I suppose I do have to address some of the “deep skeptics” observations that my arguments have some holes in the logic: since I admit I don’t completely know anything, mightn’t the radioactive waste, oil spills, poisonous gas leaks etc. etc. that have been created by humans just be part of God’s master plan that is so complex as to be beyond our comprehension. Yes, that is possible, but the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the conclusion that these human activities are crimes against God, crimes against all of nature and crimes against humanity. Our governments are just a little slow in picking them up as crimes against the state and its citizens, which makes it easier to see the reasons that many would just as soon see the state disappear, for not only do government officials collectively not get it, they are actively promoting and facilitating the very destruction that they are supposed to be helping prevent.

2. This section was inspired by Guy R. McPherson’s Killing the Natives (p 204), and Daniel Quinn’s description of incrementally “getting off the grid” in his Beyond Civilization and other works.

3. Yes, this qualification may allow for “cheating” or half measures, excuse making and so forth, but thankfully we are still human and will “deviate” from the “right path”, the important thing is to get the concept, start living mindfully (用心 – is there another Chinese term for this Buddhist concept?)

4. Paul Hawken in Nature’s Operating Instructions, p. 151,”Though writers and scholars tell us that the old industrial patterns are no longer dominant, modern economic growth is just a driven by mechanization and technology today as it was during the early Industrial Revolution. Mobile phones, laptops, PDAs, and other assorted “postindustrial” technologies are no different from spinning jennies and steam engines. They require large amounts of natural capital for production and use and are designed to increase human output. Consider this one example: for every pound of electronics in your pocket or desk, approximately eight thousand pounds of waste was created somewhere in the world. This is not the information age; it is the despoliation age.”

Robin Winkler