The debate about waste disposal and diversion is again heating up in Hamilton. Some are arguing for added focus on recycling and green bins, others for high-tech incinerators, and many simply want their trash dealt with and really don’t care how. Beyond and behind these issues, though lies a bigger question. What is garbage? Where did all this stuff come from and why are we throwing it away?

Garbage has become an epidemic in modern society. With incredible growth in consumer society and all that it entails (packaging, advertising, disposability etc), the amount we throw out is now absolutely absurd. In this “trash”, we see a mix of expensive, energy-intensive materials such as papers, plastics, foils, particleboard, metal, glass as well as organic matter and others. In theory, most of this should be recyclable without much work. Once combined, though, the whole thing becomes a big stinking, heavy, and dangerous mess which nobody wants to deal with. So we bag it, take it away in trucks, and burn or bury it so we don’t have to think about it.

This shadow we cast, though, has serious implications. That big mound of plastic packaging wasn’t free, and much or most won’t ever be recycled. When we buy these products, we pay for all the parts we don’t use as well. Some estimates see 40% of the cost of processed foods being made up of packaging cost alone. These costs are borne by consumers, workers and the environment, though any increased profits as a result tend to go toward shareholders and executives. Much of the same could be said for planned obsolescence and other kinds of disposability – the goal is to make more money, not serve our needs more effectively.

Big public recycling programs can help, but having known a few people who’ve worked in them, they don’t strike me as solutions. They’re hell to work in, throw out tons of goods because of “contamination” and only ever end up providing a relatively small amount of low-grade material to be sold for scrap. This is what’s known as downcycling – materials are recouped, but not in as high-quality a form as the original. Much of the same can be said for big city-wide composting programs, though their total efficiency is higher because the processes used can digest nearly anything.

Garbage plays a crucial role in capitalism. Technology long ago provided us with far more production capacity than we can use. In order to keep people employed and keep profits rolling in, companies embraced a policy of building low-quality products which would need to be produced and purchased over and over again. That, in turn, forces us back to work to buy more crap, build more low-quality products and needlessly expend more natural resources. Garbage plays an economic role much like warfare – burning the town down every few years so as to create jobs for workers to build it again.

Garbage is not a problem which can be considered in isolation. Clever “waste-management” schemes often ignore the crucial role that this “waste” plays in the wider world. This can be seen ecologically, when agricultural wastes and timber ‘slash’ is burned, gasified or turned into alcohols. Economically, it brings more fuel, more profits and jobs processing it. But biologically it’s a disaster, as needed biomass isn’t composted back into the soil. Economically and culturally, the constant pressure of nearly useless “stuff” we come to possess pushes us to dispose of useful goods along with it – it’s amazing how often I see old appliances, bikes, brewing equipment and other goods tossed. Garbage dumps are black holes for nearly every kind of value, ensuring that our work will never be “done”.

In “garbage”, though, we also see many solutions. By engineering products to fail early in their possible lifespan, we leave consumers with a heap of useful products, materials and components which are still “good” in many ways. This strange social custom provides us all with a nearly limitless source of raw materials with which to play and experiment. And the more we learn with spare parts and scrap materials, the more we can devote toward not needing all this junk in the first place. Many cutting edge designers love waste as a medium because it allows them to create machines which can be reproduced by anyone, anywhere, without expensive factories and equipment. Innovations such as open source machining tools, housing and energy sources are developing rapidly in these forms because of their accessibility.

Zero-Fidelity CNC – building a CNC laser cutter/engraver from an old DVD writer and some printer motors.
Earthship Biotecture – Zero-energy homes from tires, bottles and dirt.

Both personally and collectively, this can be an incredibly valuable resource. To simply throw it away is a waste in every sense of the word. Whether it represents initial design flaws or simply our careless lack of use of the things we buy, the end result is the same: we pay, the planet pays, and a few get richer. The materials we throw away are highly engineered and processed – they can easily be re-used in thousands of ways, and we shouldn’t wait for city council to pass a motion before that happens. Whether we’re scouring for old furniture on garbage night or trading goods on Freecycle, better utilizing the resources we already have before us is the first step in setting ourselves free.