Waste Not – Want Not

by Brian Ragbourn, PhD

Newcomers to my kitchen occasionally ask, “Where’s the bin?” and are surprised to learn “There isn’t one.” Compostables go in the outside privy, combustibles get burnt in the wood-burning stove, and any jar or container gets washed for re-use. Were it possible to turn the clock back a few hundred years, this would have been common practice for our ancestors, who would have attached more value to a capped bottle or lidded jar than to its contents.

Items taken to the recycling centre typically undergo a process of downgrading. Although the discarded item gets transformed into something else that is usable, that something-else is of lower quality with a lesser range of uses. For example, when the different polymers within an assortment of plastic are melted to form a secondary-plastic, they lose their elasticity, necessitating further chemical additives to offset the hybridised rigidity. The speckled grey or chocolate-brown secondary-plastic sheeting and planks often contain flecks of metal which can hamper sawing and blunt the saw.

So what is generally referred to as “recycling” is a one-way downwards spiral, and not a “cycle” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a series of events that are regularly repeated in the same order”.

Polluted by Plastic

China imports and processes rubbish from around the world in order to supplement its resources. Mountains of imported plastic waste are hand-sorted, and the wind-blown plastic and polythene littering the surrounding countryside get consumed by domestic animals, many of which die due to their stomachs getting clogged up with plastic. The water used to rinse the plastic waste has polluted streams which had formerly been the local source of drinking water, and many children living and playing in the waste-yards are contracting cancer.

The foreign donors of this plastic don’t always wash their bottles or cartons prior to disposing of them at the recycling centre. The mould from a few unwashed items can contaminate a whole batch. Consequently, a significant number of shipping container loads of used plastic have been freighted to China, only to be opened, inspected, rejected and shipped back for landfill: at least 17 container-loads were returned to Britain during 2012, and 24 shipped back to America in 2013.

A 2015 report in Science magazine estimated that every year 8 million tons of plastic waste goes into the sea, and according to Greenpeace a million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals annually die on account of ingesting this buoyant debris. Even the most exotic beaches in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres are now strewn with washed-up non-degradable plastics. http://uk.businessinsider.com/photos-of-henderson-island-plastic-trash-2017-5?r=US&IR=T

Many bobbing plastic items gets captured by circulating currents, and floating plastic junkyards have accumulated at five of these gyres, the most infamous being the Pacific Trash Vortex which, according to the UN’s environmental programme, is now visible from space.

Beneath these conglomerations of plastic on the ocean surface lies a thick soup of plastic fibres and microbeads, which have been found to outnumber the plankton by six to one. This is ingested by plankton and hundreds of marine species that for some reason find the scent of plastic appealing.

Microplastic can contain and absorb toxic chemicals and harbour pathogens, and has been found in a third of the fish caught by UK fishermen in research conducted by Prof. Richard Thompson of Plymouth University, who subsequently warned, “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.”

Research by Orb Media, which analysed tap water from more than a dozen countries, found plastic fibres in 83% of samples. And a recent report, ‘Production, Use and Fate of All the Plastic Ever Made’ estimates that as of 2015, 79% of all-the-plastic-that-has-ever-been-produced ended up in landfill and the natural environment, 12% has been incinerated whilst only 9% was recycled

Towards Zero Waste

Reducing one’s material desires is a step in the right direction. As too is taking care not to break things, and having a preference for consumer durables that are actually durable. Numerous books have been written about waste reduction, eg. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, The Zero Waste Home by Kate Anderson, Zero Waste Lifestyle by Amy Korst, and The Zero Waste Lifestyle by Anne Meyers. It is some indication of to what extent we have lost touch with the very Nature that supports us that what our ancestors would have considered plain common sense has been elevated to the status of expertise.

My journey towards zero waste was initially unintentional. I took up the challenge when it occurred to me that I was producing one-carrier-bagful of household waste every two months. This rubbish typically consisted of the flimsy non-combustible aluminum foil from the lids of yogurt cartons and linings of tetra-packs, together with occasional worn-out footwear, dysfunctional light bulbs etc. I gradually graduated down through a one-carrier-bag-every-three-months phase, and am now probably somewhere in the region of one carrier bagful per year. Discarded boots and shoes are now utilised for capping splintered fence stakes, constructing raised beds or mulching. And during the winter months a (light)Bulb-for-(daffodil)Bulb exchange operates at a local hardware store.

Some people try to impress others with a display of conspicuous consumption, or make efforts to “keep up with the Jones’s”. Conversely, when one’s recycling endeavours are blatant and visible, local builders and neighbours occasionally drop by and ask whether you want any old windows, scaffold boards, or other second-hand building and farming materials. I always say “yes”, even if I have no immediate use for them, as I can invariably find somebody else who can utilise them. To refuse an offer of useable stuff that you don’t want could cause embarrassment, such that the person might not come round another time to offer you something that you do want.

Eventually-mouse proofed compost toilet
Compost-Interest Investment

It is easier for those living on the land to lead a low-impact lifestyle. My compost toilet is the preliminary processing plant of a two-year maturity investment for kitchen scraps, ash, together with my daily constitutional, plus a sprinkling of sawdust or dry leaves for good measure. Its ground-level ventilation enables natural aerobic bacteria to break down the deposited waste, which is periodically wheel-barrowed to a compost heap where it matures into a rich humus which fertilises the soil to return a dependable yield.

Human urine has numerous uses. When added to a compost heap it accelerates the decomposition, or if diluted down with four or five times its volume of water it can be used as an organic fertiliser. Alternatively storing urine enhances its ammonia making it a useful natural herbicide, provided it is applied during a period of dry weather.

Ingenuity is required when building a compost toilet if one intends to keep rodents out. Drawing on eight years of experience using one, a design sprang to mind which at the time seemed worthy of entry for Bill Gates’s award for the world’s best compost toilet. And might even have been submitted, had not the contest already taken place.

The structure was supported by 5 nine foot 4” by 4” recycled plastic stilts with recycled plastic sheeting on two sides, a sturdy floor made from recycled teak window-frames, together with two recycled windows and a car windscreen. Although the windscreen has arced track-marks left by the wiper blades, to seasoned recyclers that is a bonus. A bit like collecting foreign stamps: the franked ones are sometimes more valuable than those which haven’t been used.

When finally constructed I inspected the expanded metal mesh that encases the composting chamber, and confidently assumed, “impregnable, no way will any mice or rats be getting in there.” Lo and behold, a week into operation and I noticed a tiny shrew roaming around in the composting chamber. The long-nosed shrew looked relaxed and friendly, so I was hesitant to cause any anxiety. Nevertheless I clapped my hands and watched the startled shrew run for cover, thus revealing its point of entry.

Two years on, after having plugged up other discreet, shrewdly-engineered tunnelings, I seem to have finally exhausted the imaginative schemings of the furry gatecrashers. Of course, I accept that an occasional foraging shrew or vole is just playing its natural role in the recycling process. But it’s not a smart idea to be creating incentives for them to set up home next to your dwellings, because they will inevitably attempt to gatecrash there too!

The standard flush-and-forget lavatory propels diluted sewage along a piped network into a holding tank where it joins more diluted sewage, compounding a problem which needn’t exist. The raw sewage is then either percolated through a chemical treatment system, which produces a sludge, peppered with dioxins, antibiotics and endocrine disruptors, or is discharged into the sea on the assumption that it will become decontaminated within the vastness of the ocean. A Western European urban household typically uses 35,000 litres of drinking water per year to flush their toilet.

Rainwater collection in stainless steel tank and whisky barrels
Self Reliance and Regional Autonomy

Those not connected to a mains water supply network have the option of obtaining their water from a stream, a well or by rainwater harvesting. Having explored all three possibilities I chose rainwater harvesting, which is particularly well suited to Ireland with its abundance of rainfall.

Rain can be collected from the gutters into a recycled oak whisky barrel, the charred oak interior of which possesses natural anti-septic qualities, such that you don’t get the same build up of algae and bacteria that occurs within a plastic water butt. Another method of sterilising rainwater is with a silver coin, which likewise kills bacteria.

Any large scale switch to rainwater harvesting and compost toilets would involve having people spread more evenly across the land, as opposed to the current situation in which more than half the world’s population are residing in cities and towns.

However, in order to regenerate rural communities, one needs to support their endeavours. Each local product purchased helps provide a livelihood for those in the neighbourhood, and lessens our dependence on imported goods, which are prone to unpredictable foreign circumstances beyond our control.

With mounting volatility within the international trading environment, the standard policy of “food security”, based on imported foodstuffs, is destined to be operating in crisis mode. The ultimate security is food sovereignty whereby basic essentials are locally, regionally or nationally grown. Such regional autonomy will require more people living and working on the land, which would help to reduce our present-day waste epidemic.

Regional autonomy is not synonymous with political popularism, but is instead about thinking globally and acting locally, as expressed in Shrii Prabhat Rainjan.Sarkar’s Progressive Utilisation Theory (PROUT).

Local produce sold at Scariff Smallholders’ Market, Ireland

PROUT operates on the principle of maximum utilisation of the world’s resources for the benefit of all its present and future human and non-human inhabitants. At present the combined wealth of the 3.6 billion people who are the poorer half of the world’s population is equivalent to the collective assets of the world’s 8 richest people. These plutocrats have a smash-and-grab approach to the world’s natural resources, and their mindset is to be shipping goods back and forth to exploit cheap foreign labour and lucrative tax loopholes.

Distributive justice, which concerns the equitable distribution of resources, has been overshadowed by procedural justice which involves a due process for maintaining law and order and resolving disputes. If greater emphasis was placed on distributive justice and limitations placed on the individual hoarding of wealth, there would be much less crime and litigations to be dealt with within the procedural justice system.

The incentive to adopt this compassionate 360 degree perspective is the understanding that “we’re all in this together” based on an awareness of our underlying spiritual Oneness, and the realisation that a grand cosmic drama is unfolding on our planetary home in which we all have a positive role to play.