Outsmart Waste

The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It

Tom Szaky (Author)

Publication date: 12/10/2013

Outsmart Waste

Why DOES garbage exist in human society? Why has it become a problem only in the last century? And most importantly, how can we eliminate it-outsmart the very idea of garbage?

  • Changes everything you ever thought you knew about garbage-and is guaranteed to change how you buy, consume, and dispose of things
  • Explains the origins of the modern garbage crisis and what each of us can do to solve it
  • Written by a dynamic young entrepreneur whose innovative, award-winning company has enlisted 35 million people to help outsmart waste in 22 countries

Garbage has become a huge problem. Ever-expanding hazardous landfills, toxic waste dumps, ocean dead zones, endangered wildlife-it's an environmental nightmare.

But garbage is a recent problem-for most of human history it was a minor annoyance-so we should be able to solve it. And garbage doesn't even exist in nature, where the output of one organism is the input of another. So why does garbage exist in human society? Why has it become a problem only in the last century? And most importantly, how can we eliminate it-outsmart the very idea of garbage?

Eco-entrepreneur Tom Szaky says that to outsmart waste, first we have to understand it, then change how we create it, and finally rethink what we do with it. He traces the roots of our current garbage crisis to 20th-century social shifts and technological advances that resulted in historic changes in consuming habits-both the amount of garbage created and its longevity increased dramatically. We are now producing five billion tons of waste a year, and our only ways of dealing with it are crude and even dangerous: burying it or burning it. We can do better!

Every time we make a purchase, we are essentially voting for the kind of world we want to live in. Szaky shows that by becoming acutely aware of the deeper implications of why we buy, what we buy, when we buy, and what we do with what we've bought, we can cast our vote for a waste-free world. And through innovative recycling and creative "upcycling" (creating new products from discarded objects), we can transform the waste we can't avoid creating from useless waste into a useful resource-as it is in nature.

We do not have to turn the Earth into a cosmic trash can. We as individuals have the power to turn this situation around. And, as Szaky demonstrates, there is a use for every kind of garbage-cigarette butts, toothbrushes, pens, packaging, you name it. After reading this mind-expanding book, you will never think of garbage the same way again.

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Overview

Why DOES garbage exist in human society? Why has it become a problem only in the last century? And most importantly, how can we eliminate it-outsmart the very idea of garbage?

  • Changes everything you ever thought you knew about garbage-and is guaranteed to change how you buy, consume, and dispose of things
  • Explains the origins of the modern garbage crisis and what each of us can do to solve it
  • Written by a dynamic young entrepreneur whose innovative, award-winning company has enlisted 35 million people to help outsmart waste in 22 countries

Garbage has become a huge problem. Ever-expanding hazardous landfills, toxic waste dumps, ocean dead zones, endangered wildlife-it's an environmental nightmare.

But garbage is a recent problem-for most of human history it was a minor annoyance-so we should be able to solve it. And garbage doesn't even exist in nature, where the output of one organism is the input of another. So why does garbage exist in human society? Why has it become a problem only in the last century? And most importantly, how can we eliminate it-outsmart the very idea of garbage?

Eco-entrepreneur Tom Szaky says that to outsmart waste, first we have to understand it, then change how we create it, and finally rethink what we do with it. He traces the roots of our current garbage crisis to 20th-century social shifts and technological advances that resulted in historic changes in consuming habits-both the amount of garbage created and its longevity increased dramatically. We are now producing five billion tons of waste a year, and our only ways of dealing with it are crude and even dangerous: burying it or burning it. We can do better!

Every time we make a purchase, we are essentially voting for the kind of world we want to live in. Szaky shows that by becoming acutely aware of the deeper implications of why we buy, what we buy, when we buy, and what we do with what we've bought, we can cast our vote for a waste-free world. And through innovative recycling and creative "upcycling" (creating new products from discarded objects), we can transform the waste we can't avoid creating from useless waste into a useful resource-as it is in nature.

We do not have to turn the Earth into a cosmic trash can. We as individuals have the power to turn this situation around. And, as Szaky demonstrates, there is a use for every kind of garbage-cigarette butts, toothbrushes, pens, packaging, you name it. After reading this mind-expanding book, you will never think of garbage the same way again.

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Tom Szaky



Tom Szaky was born in Budapest in the early 1980s during a time of communism and economic hardship. After the nuclear power reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded in 1986, Tom’s family was able to escape Hungary and move to Germany, then Holland, and finally settle in Canada.

The economic contrast of communist Hungary to that of North American capitalism brought about the realization of the vast value that we improperly discard in our country’s waste system. During the early 1990s on their many scavenging trips through dumpers, Tom and his dad found working color televisions (something which they never had access to in Budapest), stereos, couches, entire vinyl record collections, and other valuable goods.

It was this fascination with discarded value in combination with Tom’s love of entrepreneurship that led him to found TerraCycle (www.terracycle.com) during his freshman year at Princeton University.

Tom has personally won more than 100 awards for entrepreneurship; he blogs for the New York Times, Treehugger, the Huffington Post, and a number of other major websites; and in 2007 he published his first book, Revolution in a Bottle. Tom is also the star of the National Geographic Channel TV show Garbage Moguls.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Deepak Chopra

Introduction: The Unique Nature of Garbage

Chapter 1: Where the Modern Idea of Garbage Originated

Chapter 2: The Role of the Individual Purchase

Chapter 3: Our Primary Global Solution to Waste: Bury It

Chapter 4: The Energy Inherent in Our Waste

Chapter 5: The Hierarchy of Waste

Chapter 6: The Art of Upcycling

Chapter 7: The Science of Recycling

Chapter 8: The Critical Element of Separation

Chapter 9: The Economics of Outsmarting Waste

Conclusion: Waste Is Over! (If You Want It)

Notes

Index

About Tom Szaky

About TerraCycle

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Excerpt

Outsmart Waste

Introduction

The Unique Nature of Garbage

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© Vadim Kozlovsky/Shutterstock.com

© Tommaso Lizzul/Shutterstock.com

Garbage” is a uniquely human concept that does not exist in nature. In nature the output, or waste, of one organism is the useful input for other organisms. Feces from a fox can become food for a berry bush, whose fruit can later become the food for a bird that may end up as supper for the fox whose droppings started it all. This natural harmony is rooted in the principle that the outputs of organisms tend to bring significant, if not fundamental, benefits to other organisms.

With the creation of synthetic materials, humans have broken this natural harmony. While plastics and other man-made materials have allowed us to innovate and create products cheaply, when they hit the end of their useful life they become useless outputs that nature doesn’t know what to do with. Not only are many of these new products relatively cheap to buy but many of us typically don’t even have to have the actual resources to buy them; gaining debt (through credit cards and other loans) is perhaps the easiest it has ever been.

Of course, there are ways to better realign ourselves with the harmony of nature. Buying products differently—buying consciously, buying durable, buying used, or simply not buying at all—is a straightforward way that individual consumption can have a smaller impact on nature.

It is quite difficult, however, to lead a life in which we do not buy anything or buy only our bare essentials (food and a few scraps of fabric to cover our bodies). I have started down the path of rethinking what I buy and have found it to be an uphill battle. Like most people, I enjoy acquiring things; the feeling when I open a box with something new to possess inside it is still thrilling, and that fleeting thrill is encouraged by a global culture of rampant consumerism. Just think of how many stores and advertisements we pass by on a daily basis that encourage more and more consumption—all seeming to scream, “You’ll gain happiness by buying me!”

We see fish with bellies full of plastic and birds making nests from cigarette butts, and the problem only compounds with our tendency to overconsume. Easy and cheap access to many goods, a dramatic increase in global population, and a throwaway consumer culture have resulted in a global garbage crisis.

What Currently Happens to Our Waste?

Our waste is a monumental problem. Over the past 100 years, the amount of waste that humanity produces has increased by almost 10,000 percent. Developed countries produce more than 4 pounds of waste per person per day.1 Of that staggering volume, it is estimated that 25 percent ends up in our oceans, forming five gigantic, Texas-sized ocean gyres of garbage.2 Because of the complexity of much of our garbage, only a small percentage gets recycled.

The majority of the waste that isn’t recycled and doesn’t wind up in the ocean is effectively mummified and compressed in landfills, leaching out methane and other toxic outputs over time. If it is not buried, it is typically burned in incinerators. While a very small percentage of incinerators do produce some energy as an output, in the process they also destroy all possible value except the caloric (or energy) value inherent in the materials. You can burn something only once.

While the global garbage crisis touches every individual in the world and grows every year, there is cause for optimism. Garbage is a rare example of an environmental problem over which, as individuals, we have tremendous control. The key question is: why do we spend huge amounts of resources—energy, money, and time—to extract oil from the ground and refine it into high-grade plastics, only to burn or bury it after one short use?

Unfortunately, and unlike nature, we often view our waste as something without any inherent value. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.

A Circular Solution to Waste

To properly manage our waste, we need to bring a perspective of value to it, as nature does. Instead of seeing waste purely as a negative—a useless by-product that we spend money to burn or bury—perhaps we can start seeing it as a positive: an inherently valuable combination of materials that can be processed and shaped into objects with specific purposes. The key is to see our outputs not as problems but as assets; it is to see “waste” not as the end of a linear process but as a stage in a circular life cycle.

Reuse—a synonym of buying used—is perhaps the solution that most clearly sees the value inherent in our waste. It effectively says that the “waste” object is waste only in the eyes of the initial user; the object retains all of its initial utility in the eyes of the next user and because of that perspective doesn’t actually end up as “garbage.” If I’m tired of my jeans and put them in the local clothing drop and someone else buys them a few months later, that pair of pants was never rendered waste: they didn’t end up in a landfill, and a new pair of pants did not have to be made to meet the needs or desires of the second user.

Not everything is as simple to reuse as a pair of jeans, and most human waste cannot be reused at all. From an empty potato chips bag to a used toothbrush, many objects can serve their intended function only once. Upcycling is an emerging trend whereby one sees value in both the composition and the form of an object but not the intention. That crumpled bag that once held a few handfuls of chips can be folded into a purse or bracelet. The used toothbrush can become a pen, a doormat, or one of any number of useful objects. Although more energy is used to upcycle an object than is needed to simply reuse it, it is usually a relatively small amount.

If upcycling a particular waste product is not possible—as is the case with items like dirty diapers and cigarette butts—the product can typically be deconstructed into its component parts and used again. A used diaper or pile of cigarette butts can be shredded and separated into their respective raw materials. The resulting material, from the plastic to the organics, can be used again for different purposes. While the initial intention and form of the object is destroyed, new raw materials don’t have to be extracted from the earth, and synthetic products aren’t added to a landfill or some plastic island in the ocean.

It’s All about the Economics

In the end all waste can be reused, upcycled, or recycled, avoiding the need to burden our planet with the constant extraction of raw materials and the introduction of synthetic ones. The challenge in all of this—whether you are trying to limit your purchasing or process waste through circular solutions—is one of economics.

In terms of waste generation, if we seriously limit our buying or exclusively buy used durable goods, we will likely negatively affect our economy, making it harder to keep our growing population gainfully employed. In terms of waste processing, circular solutions depend on waste separation, which is typically more expensive than simply burning or burying waste.

The question we must grapple with is this: Are we willing to live with moderated economic growth in exchange for a healthier planet? We can make environmental progress in the short term without sacrificing our staggering economic growth, but a long-term, sustainable solution will require fundamental changes to our culture, economy, and individual perspectives. Do we want to live in a world where we are actively destroying our planet to fuel a need to acquire physical objects? Or do we want to rethink how we create and handle our waste, making possible a more balanced—and perhaps even happier—existence?

The best part of attempting to deal with the problem of garbage is that it is something we can do immediately, as individuals. We are, after all, the root cause of garbage.

To outsmart waste, we have to understand what it is and where it comes from; then we can rethink the ways in which we create waste and what, ultimately, we can do with it.

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Endorsements

“Tom illuminates pathways to finding ‘gold in garbage heaps'… Thanks to this book, I can no longer acquire and discard unconsciously, and as I've long said, change begins with awareness.”
—From the foreword by Deepak Chopra

“The waste industry is ripe for massive innovation and change. It takes creative minds and people with the courage to knock down doors and go around walls to be the spark. Tom is that.”
—Ron Gonen, New York City Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation, Recycling, and Sustainability and cofounder and former CEO, RecycleBank

"Real change demands big, fearless ideas. In Outsmart Waste, Tom Szaky turns conventional thinking about trash on its head and lights the way for fundamental transformation of the waste system. Tom also illustrates how to turn seemingly impossible ideas into practical on the ground solutions - in record time. A must read for anyone who makes waste!"
—Geoff Rathbone, Vice President of Resource Recovery, Progressive Waste Solutions and former General Manager of Solid Waste Services for the City of Toronto

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