Waste Systems & Recycling

Finding Value in Waste: A Permaculture Approach to the Excesses of Consumer Civilisation

Why we should all be viewing waste as a resource for creating more resilient systems

One thing that our modern-day civilisation is never short on is waste. Our consumer-based culture is also a throw-away culture, and we´re taught that the moment that something is considered to be defective or out of date or simply no longer to our liking, it belongs in the trash. While our grandparents may complain that “things just aren´t built like they used to be”, our global economy is designed to make things disposable.

Planned obsolescence isn´t a conspiracy theory. Rather, the titans of commerce and industry understand that if people are to purchase items in order to make the economy grow, those items need to be made cheaply so that they´ll break down and necessitate another trip to the store.

From the perspective of permaculture, the waste from industrial culture´s excesses is a unique “resource” that can further the work of creating more resilient systems.

The Dumpster House

Across the United States, around 548 million tons of construction and demolition debris were generated in 2015 alone. While a small percentage of that debris is sent to recycling plants, the vast majority of this building debris ends up in landfills across the country. Some salvage stores such as Habitat for Humanity ReStores supply a wide range of low-cost salvaged goods for home construction projects. Another strategy is to simply visit home construction sites in your region, where you´re likely to find an enormous amount of wood scraps that can be used for building and renovation projects.

Susana Lein is a renowned permaculture farmer from Kentucky who was recently featured in the documentary Inhabit. Her farm, Salamander Springs, is one of the best examples of no-till agriculture methods to improve soil, capture carbon from the air, and produce amazing, organic yields of everything from corn to beans to root vegetables.

After living and working in Guatemala for close to a decade, Susana returned to the United States determined to start her own permaculture farm. Short on cash, she needed a place to live but wanted to live on her farm instead of renting a place in the nearby town of Berea. Her solution was to scavenge for excess construction material found in dumpsters at construction sites.

Her modest home, where she lived for several years while dedicating her time to establishing her permaculture farm, was built essentially for free. The materials were provided by the dumpsters and she traded labour with friends to help her get her home finished and liveable. Relying on recycled, salvaged, or upcycled building materials is a great strategy to drastically reduce the embodied energy footprint of the homes we live in, which is the total amount of energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product delivery.

Organic Material

To build soil quickly, having a large supply of organic matter is a prerequisite. While life in the countryside might very well offer you an abundance of leaf litter, twigs and branches for wood chips, and straw from your past wheat harvest, these are not easy to come by. You have to go out and rake up the leaves, gather the twigs and branches and buy a chipper to make mulch, or plant the wheat, harvest it and then bale the straw.

In almost every city and suburban area, however, it is relatively easy to find truckloads of organic material just sitting by the curb. One of the most ironic behaviours of city dwellers is their absolute hatred of fallen leaves. People pay good money for a group of young men with rakes and blowers to put those leaves in plastic garbage bags and place them beside the road for the garbage truck to whisk away. Similarly, a fallen tree limb might often be chain-sawed into manageable sizes and also left for the garbage truck. Electrical companies with industrial-sized wood chippers create mountains of fantastic mulch from the branches and limbs that they cut away from the powerlines running throughout the city.

While municipal and city composting programs are beginning to put to better use the formerly unwanted sources of organic material, most cities across the world continue to accept yard waste as part of their regular garbage pickup. The breakdown of organic waste in landfills is one of the leading causes of methane emissions, and methane is a greenhouse gas that is much more potent than carbon dioxide. At the same time, it is also a complete waste of important soil-building material.

With a pickup truck or trailer and an extra hour, most people can easily forage for enough organic material on the streets of any city to turn even hardpan, clay soil into a fertile humus in a relatively short amount of time.


Food Waste

In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 per cent of the food supply. Not only should this amount of waste be offensive in a world where hunger is still commonplace, but Project Drawdown finds that if 50 per cent of food waste were to be reduced by 2050, avoided emissions could be equal to 26.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide. While some cities such as San Francisco, California, have mandatory food waste recycling operations, in most cities across the world huge amounts of food waste can be sourced from restaurants, school cafeterias and markets.

Jared Yoder Stoltzfus, an environmental science professor at James Madison University in Virginia, recently raised a herd of backyard pigs on nothing but the food waste from his school cafeteria. Similarly, small coffee farmers in the San Marcos department of Guatemala have developed a massive lombricompost operation from food waste sourced from area restaurants. The waste which would otherwise be sent to a local dump is transformed into a nutrient rich organic fertiliser for their coffee fields.

Antique Stores

Lastly, for people who are looking to avoid the planned obsolescence of most consumer items on the market today, the best place to do your shopping might very well be at the antique or secondhand goods store. All kinds of useful and well-made farm tools from scythes to sickles to pitchforks can be found at dirt cheap prices. Cast iron skillets, manual egg beaters and copper tea pots are also a few of the kitchen utensils, that, even though they were made 100 years ago, will easily outlast the cheap, plastic, electric gizmos offered at large retailers.

While the excesses of consumer civilisation are obviously unfortunate, for the time being they also provide an important opportunity to upcycle that waste for sustainable and ecological land design.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.

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