Home » Gerry Gillespie on Recycling and the Concept of Waste

Gerry Gillespie on Recycling and the Concept of Waste

By Gerry Gillespie
This is an excerpt from The Waste Between Our Ears

The only place waste exists in any natural system is between human ears.

Waste is a concept. It is not a fact. Through misuse of language, it has colonized the human mind with a base deception. When we define things as waste, we make them fit into our predetermined “waste” categories. Once defined as waste, we give ourselves permission to treat items as such, and thus we allow and introduce the collection method, the partial processing, and the penultimate waste. If we don’t define materials as waste, we are obliged to simply treat them as what they are—as materials.

Nature has no waste. The outputs of one thing become the inputs of another—nature simply treats things as they are and uses them for continual benefit in a circular system in which they are disposed from one circumstance to the next.

A community with a focus on zero waste has the opportunity to place itself back into the cycle of nature. There is no such tangible thing as waste, in precisely the same way that there is no such tangible thing as a public holiday. When we nominate a day of the week as a public holiday, this does not change the form, the structure, the weather, or the time of that day—we simply change how we might behave or react during it. A good, bad, or indifferent public holiday is determined by our attitude toward it. The same is true of wasted materials. 

If they were not defined as waste and were instead source-separated into categories that did not contaminate each other, a very large percentage of materials would follow the disposal processes of nature and would be available for their next functional use. If only we could provide the right tools, motivation, and information to source-separate our outputs into categories and to generate benefit for our communities. This is currently only happening in select communities where the focus is on reduced environmental impact, maximum community benefit, and local employment.

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Wasted Incentives

I would suggest that this is because we don’t recognize the actual value in products or materials. Our value propositions in regard to disused materials are artificial because we categorize them as wasted products, even when we do recover them. We train people in the management of waste, give them tools to manage waste, and then appoint them to manage waste. If we then use these very same people to manage our recycling programs, using the same collection containers, vehicles, and training, the most likely result is that we will get much more waste, because the responsible people are trained to manage waste, not to manage resource recovery businesses. In fact, it could readily be argued that if people in the public sectors of local or state management have never owned or operated a business; putting them in charge of the recovery of resources to be used as a business input is counterintuitive. In the main, they have no concept of base value, secondary use, manufacturing process, or market value.

Why should we be surprised when we give waste managers big bulldozers and holes in the ground that we end up with filled-in holes? An even more terrible alternative is allowing them to borrow enormous amounts of public funds and to accrue long-term debt to build an incinerator. In that case, the result is toxic ash and carcinogens in the air. Professor Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor in the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, said this of incineration:

If there is one way of extinguishing the value of the materials fast, it’s to stick it in an incinerator and burn it. Now it may give you energy at the end of the day, but actually some of those materials, even if they are plastics, with a little bit of ingenuity, can be given more positive value. And one of the things that worries me is that we are taking these materials, we’re putting them in incinerators, we’re losing them forever, and actually we’re creating carbon dioxide out of them as well, which is not a great thing, when in fact we could be long-term storing them until we have the innovative technologies to re-use them and to turn them into something that is more positively valued. And this brings me to a more general point about landfill . . . landfill is actually a very low marginal-cost method for storing materials—highly resistant materials such as plastics and metals—for a long period of time. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that in a few decades time, or maybe a bit longer, we might be mining our landfill sites for the resources they contain, and rather than put some of those resources into incinerators and just lose them forever we might want to think differently about the landfill sites. (8)

8. “Chief Defra scientist says incineration extinguishes innovation,” United Kingdom
Without Incineration Network, published 1 February, 2018, http://ukwin.org.

Professor Boyd’s astute observation leads to the obvious conclusion that if you want to store material for later recovery, there is a need to eliminate all organic material from the mix. Therefore, a primary element in this process would be source separation to enable the removal of all organic waste, including paper and cardboard, to prevent methane generation.

recycling bins

We clearly need to give managers different tools, motivation, and information if we want a different result. If we keep providing the infrastructure for waste, training to manage waste, and financing for waste, there is a good chance we will continue to get waste. Material outputs from any individual, organization, or community need to be managed by social enterprise and business developers, not waste managers.

We have created a circumstance where not only the waste companies, but the recyclers, too, see themselves as needing to have waste to provide themselves permanent employment. They would all potentially see the elimination of waste as a career threat. Waste companies are not interested in community outcomes—and quite rightfully, given their employed role: a primary interest for the general manager of a waste company is the dividend going back to the shareholders. That’s their job description and how they advance in their careers. The more community money they can extract from government to do that job— to handle materials, to provide more trucks, and to increase expense to the customer—the better it is for their shareholders. Comingled recycling collections for the waste industry are a brilliant income generator— they are the next best thing to total mixed and mashed waste collections. In some ways they are better, because they need two sets of trucks, more elaborate equipment, and bigger buildings. In some instances, one company can have multiple contracts for collections, processing, and disposal.

The waste industry will always tell you that people will not recycle because they are lazy or ignorant. However, it is of course in the waste companies’ best interest to tell you that. Keep in mind that in the past twenty years the country of Wales has gone from 5 percent recycling nationally to second best in the world—you can’t do that if your community is lazy or ignorant. The fewer people engaged in the recycling process, the more mixed materials you have. In that case, the waste industry argues that we need more machinery and facilities if we want to recycle materials after they have all been mashed together. However, source separation is not only cheaper in the long run—it also eliminates the need for all those clunky, huge, expensive Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs), which are built for the benefit of bigger contracts. Coincidentally, source separation means communities can make even more money from recycling. Simply replace the expensive trucks and MRF machinery with more jobs on the street and curbside sorting vehicles. 

To keep reading about recycling and the concept of waste – get your copy of Gerry Gillespie’s The Waste Between Our Ears today!

About the Author

Gerry Gillespie

Gerry Gillespie has been involved in the recovery of wasted resources and their reuse for the benefit of community and business for the past 25 years. His experience and skills mean he’s widely regarded as a leading edge proponent in innovative resource recovery and economic development and related systems analysis.