Glimps starts to blog again and to hit it off, we bring you an updated version of a post that we wrote a while ago. Enjoy the read.
‘Waste does not exist’, the slogan of one of the biggest Belgian companies in waste logistics. They got it almost right. I would argue waste does exist, but it is a mental construct. To explore this idea, let’s start with a story.
The two trees
Imagine a small village long ago in a kingdom far away. It’s a peaceful village and people have lots of free time to enjoy life and nature. Close to the village there are two ancient twin trees. People go there every day to relax, enjoy the shade and eat the fruits of the trees. The villagers love their trees.
Life is pretty perfect for the villagers. But if they were to improve one thing, it’s the connection with their family. A lot of villagers have family in a village further away, beyond the trees, harder to reach.
At some point, a clever villager proposes they build a road to connect the two villages. That way, people can more easily visit each other. Everyone agrees on the great idea. However, the plans show that the only place suitable to build a road is right where one of the trees is. Getting rid of it is no option, so the villagers come up with a solution. They’re going to build the road around the tree. The villagers are happy: they keep the tree and the road. They start building and finish in no time.
After a while it becomes clear the tree is really getting in the way. The horses can’t pass as well as the villagers imagined. People can’t sit in the shade without getting in the way of others and they can’t reach the fruits anymore. The villagers get together to vent their frustration about ‘that damn tree in the middle of the road’ and are seriously considering cutting it down. They have a second tree anyway. The villagers would need to make agreements about who gets to sit under the one remaining tree at which times, but they can live with that.
What happened to the now unwanted tree? Over just a short period, one of the trees went from having a positive value, to having a negative value. The other tree kept its value. However, they are still basically the same tree with the same shade and the same fruits. The only difference of these two trees is their context, which determines their value to a large extent.
The initial surroundings of the trees were natural. The new surroundings with the road were a context created by people.
This shows that we are not just makers of objects, like plastic cups, but also of contexts. In fact, the more objects we make, the more we are designing a context. Every object we make joins the context for objects made in the past and future.
The value of an object arises from the interaction of the object (the tree and its shade, fruits, and bees) with its context (the road and villagers). It is obvious that the very same two trees, but both located 1000 kilometers further away, would not create the same value for the villagers, since there would be hardly any interaction.
Therefore, when we create an object, it is our responsibility to design a complementary context in which that object has a positive value. Yet also ensuring that there are no (or as few as possible) contexts in which it has a negative value. Many problems we face today are in large part due to hardly ever getting this right.
Plastic is an interesting case study. It is very positive when wrapped around your chocolate waffle; it keeps your waffle safe from dirt and bacteria, keeps it nice and fresh during transport and makes it easy to carry. Apart from this very narrow use value as packaging, the wrapper is negative in nearly all other contexts. It doesn’t make for a nice necklace, a house for termite crabs or as fertilizer for plants.
Compare the plastic wrapper to a compostable packaging. There are way fewer contexts in which the value is truly negative. Even if dumped on the street or in landfill, it will desintegrate quickly into harmless biological compounds which in turn can be food for other life. There are thus more contexts in which it will have a positive value.
We invented a class for things like out-of-context plastic wrappers: waste. We chose to create a class of things with negative value and contrasted this with things we consider having positive value. And then we went to work classifying.
I like to imagine how it went down the first time man was able to attach such a value judgement to a thing. That moment when necessity was not there to force us to be better. That moment when we looked at the slain mammoth and saw not only possibilities, but also impossibilities. And when we failed to blame our own shortcomings for that.
Instead we have collectively summoned a common enemy into existence: Waste. And this enemy had to be fought vigorously. We have tried to fight this fight by creating objects that are newer, better and more beautiful. But rarely did we create a complementary context, one that considers life after use. And thus, everything around us, with few exceptions, eventually joined Waste’s ranks.
The mental construct
Yes, Waste does exist. But it is a mental construct. It’s a term that puts the blame on the object and masks the real cause of negative value: our failure to design suitable contexts. Waste was and still is a choice. It did not suddenly appear out of nowhere to cause us trouble. The marketing wizards will disagree with me, but here’s an idea for a slogan: “Waste exists only in our minds”.
Today we gradually start recovering this ‘Waste’ to use as a resource for new things. It has become quite the hype as well, spurring a generation of entrepreneurs and researchers. Recycling and upcycling is a big step towards a direct, positive ecological impact. However, it does not address the mindset that created the problem. The mindset that attached value as stickers to things. People are merely replacing the stickers that say ‘WASTE’ with stickers that say ‘USEFUL’. Same idea, still handing out stickers.
It’s time to stop transferring the guilt. It’s time for a shift in perspective. Let’s throw away the very concept of waste altogether. The cool thing about discarded ideas is that they pile up without creating a mess and instead serve as a symbol for how far we have come.
Many organisations and people are doing substantial to eliminate the idea of waste through re-using it, thus making it useful. In Flanders, partnerships like Vlaanderen Circulair are connecting diverse stakeholders and taking the lead in supporting local, circular economy. They support hundreds of "Doeners in Vlaanderen" (do-ers in Flanders) financially.
FlandersDC, connector in the creative sector, supplies circular design tools such as Close the Loop to designers and companies aiming to re-think their work for sustainability. Bottom-up initiatives like Impact showcase good practices, and raise general awareness in an accessible way.
There is momentum. I have one small thing to ask from you. Let’s stop using the term ‘Waste’, because words determine how we see the world. Let’s use an expression that describes reality better: ‘Wasted resources’. Next time you choose to talk about wasted resources rather than waste, you're acknowledging and supporting the transition to a Post-Waste Society.
At Glimps, we’re contributing to that future through design and collaborative projects. In the next blog post we’ll talk more about how we work, and how you could be part of it.
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