WASTE NOT WANT NOT
"WASTE: . . . Spoil or destruction, done or permitted, to lands, houses, gardens, trees, or other corporeal hereditaments, by the tenant thereof, to the prejudice of the heir, or of him in reversion or remainder . . . Any unlawful act or omission of duty on the part of the tenant which results in permanent injury to the inheritance . . ."
Black's Law Dictionary
America is not only a land of industry and commerce, it's also a land of consumption and waste, producing between 12 and 14 billion tons of waste annually. Approximately 210 million tons of that total constitutes our annual production of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), which is the trash each of us personally throws "out" every day.1
Much of our waste consists of organic material including food residues, municipal leaves, yard materials, agricultural residues, and human and livestock manures, all of which should be returned to the soil from which they originated. These organic materials are very valuable agriculturally, a fact well known among organic gardeners and farmers.
What does "organic" mean? The answer is interesting, as there are two opposing sides to this issue. Organic farmers and gardeners contend the word "organic" means that synthetic chemicals are not used in farming or gardening processes. Chemists chuckle at this interpretation of the word, because in chemistry, "organic" is defined simply as any molecule containing carbon atoms. Many synthetic chemicals are therefore considered "organic" by the chemists of the world, simply because they contain carbon. When a chemist really wants to irk an organic gardener, he simply argues that his synthetic organic compounds (pesticides, for example) are "organic" by definition, and that his chemical garden therefore qualifies as "organic" as well. Technically, both sides are correct, although there is a huge distinction that must be taken into consideration.
Carbon is the basic building block of life. When the plant life of millions of years ago became extinct and settled into the earth, it was transformed into "fossil fuels" such as coal, oil, and gas, leaving plenty of carbon embedded in these fuels. These ancient resources have become the basic stock for the petro-chemical industry, which manufactures many synthetic "organic" (i.e., carbon-bearing) chemicals, including the 2.23 billion pounds of synthetic organic pesticides Americans use each year.2 Technically, these chemicals are "organic" because they're derived from what was once plant life.
The ancient chemical stocks are altered and synthesized in laboratories to be similar to the physiological chemicals of today, which is why they work so well at killing insects and plants - they can enter their living systems and wreak havoc. Many synthetic organic chemicals make their way into human bodies as well, accumulating in the fat cells and fooling the body into thinking they belong there. They don't.
Unfortunately, synthetic organic chemicals can mimic natural human hormones, thereby dangerously interfering with the body's normal functioning. They can also damage human chromosomes, and cause cancer and numerous other diseases. Although technically "organic" because they contain carbon and are derived from ancient life, synthetic organic chemicals have become an environmental disaster due to their persistence (they hang around a long time in the environment), their pervasiveness (they have spread all over the world), and their ability to interfere with the normal functioning of the bodies of many animals (not just humans). For example, human mother's milk has consistently shown contamination from synthetic organic chemicals since 1951,3 and the incidence of human breast cancer has risen dramatically since then.
In a nutshell, that is why organic gardeners and farmers won't touch synthetic organic chemicals with a ten foot tomato stake. Instead, they use only organic materials agriculturally that are from the current era (i.e., from things that were recently alive, such as trees, lawns, and animals, although peat may be an exception). Therein lies the difference in definitions of the word "organic." To a chemist, any molecule that contains carbon is organic, no matter how altered it is from its natural state, but to an organic agriculturist, organic material must be benign and beneficial, not toxic and cancer-causing.
"It is difficult to overstate the urgency of reversing the trends of environmental deterioration."
Lester Brown and Christopher Flavin, State of the World 1999
Feces and urine are examples of natural, beneficial, organic materials excreted by the bodies of animals after completing their digestive processes. They are only "waste" when we discard them. When recycled they are resources, and are often referred to as manures, but never as waste, by the people who do the recycling.
We do not recycle waste. It's a common misuse of semantics to say that waste is, can be, or should be recycled. Resource materials are recycled, but waste is never recycled. That's why it's called "waste." Waste is any material with no inherent value that is discarded and has no further use. We humans have been so wasteful for so long that the concept of waste elimination is new to us. Yet, it is an important concept that must become imbued into human consciousness.
When a potato is peeled, the peels aren't kitchen waste - they're still potato peels. When they're collected for recycling as a resource, no waste is produced. Those of you who separate your organic material for recycling are creating no organic waste - a small but highly satisfying achievement.
Many people, especially compost, municipal, and academic professionals, nevertheless adamantly insist upon referring to these recycled materials as "waste." This is called the "waste mentality." Many of the people who are developing municipal composting programs came from the waste management field, a field in which refuse has always been waste. Today, however, refuse is increasingly becoming recognized as the resource it always was. Those of us who recycle are eliminating waste, and the term "waste" should not be associated with us. The use of the term "waste" to describe recycled materials is an unpleasant semantic habit that must be abandoned. If we're eliminating waste, we should talk like it, and be proud of it.
Following the semantics of the waste mentality, one would refer to leaves in the autumn as "tree waste," because they are no longer needed by the tree and are discarded. Yet, when one walks into the forest, where does one see waste? The answer is "nowhere," because the organic material is recycled naturally, and no waste is created. Ironically, leaves and grass clippings are referred to as "yard waste" by some compost professionals, another example of the persistent waste mentality plaguing our culture. Many of us humans are trying to mimic nature by eliminating waste as well as the mentality that accompanies it, and many of us are succeeding. Hopefully the composting professionals who are stuck in the waste mindset will eventually jump on the "resource recycling" bandwagon. They should, afterall, because compost professionals are the front line of an emerging army of people intent upon eliminating waste. Our species has created the concept of waste. It is up to us to avoid it altogether.
For many years in the United States, when people mowed their lawns, they raked the cut grass, stuffed it into large plastic garbage bags, and set it out on the curbside to be picked up by a garbage truck. The grass was then hauled away and buried in landfills along with the deodorant cans, disposable diapers, magazines, and the host of other objects of America's throw-away obsession. Having lived in the country for many years and having had a compost pile since I was first able to dig the earth, I was not aware of this cult-like fanaticism among American suburbanites.
Then one day I visited some friends in the small town near where I live. They were a young couple; he had a Ph.D. and was a professor at the local university and his wife was just finishing her Ph.D. dissertation. They had just mowed their lawn and had the green bags of grass clippings sitting out along the curb, open, with the contents plainly visible. I looked at the bags, but the sight of grass clippings being thrown out as if they were trash was so incongruous to me that, at first, it didn't register, until I did a double-take. "Why are you throwing out these grass clippings?" I asked incredulously.
"We've always done that."
"Why would you do that?"
"That's what you're supposed to do."
"Don't you have a compost pile, for heaven's sake?"
"What's a compost pile? Oh, you mean those big smelly heaps that rats get into? We don't have room for that."
"You can use the grass clippings for mulch," I suggested, as I glanced around their roomy garden, seeing lots of places for compost bins. "Look, see those roses over there? They would love these grass clippings spread around them."
"Nah, we'll just let the municipality take care of our yard waste (emphasis mine)."
At that moment, I realized my poor friends had been working so hard at becoming experts, that they didn't have time to learn about the value of grass clippings. I also suspected that our educational system has been rather remiss in its responsibilities by ignoring fundamental basics of life, such as the need for organic material recycling. After some gentle persuasion, I took the bags and spread the grass around the roses, creating a lovely green carpet, while explaining the benefits of mulch and the powerful soil nutrients resident in grass clippings. My friends watched nervously, but soon relaxed after they realized no one was going to get hurt and no rats were going to jump out at them. I think maybe they learned something valuable that day, but would certainly get no credit for it at their university.
I must give credit where credit is due, however. Many people have realized that the disposal of organic yard and garden material in landfills is unwise, and now, in the US, many states have completely banned the dumping of these materials into landfills. Some of the people who've been responsible for these policies were highly educated, yet they still managed to figure it out.
Regardless of the benefits or the hindrances of one's education, we still find no waste in nature. One organism's excrement is another's food - it's that simple. Everything is recycled through natural systems so waste doesn't exist. Humans create waste because we insist on ignoring the natural systems that we are dependent upon. We are so adept at doing so that we take waste for granted and have given the word a prominent place in our vocabulary. We have kitchen "waste," garden "waste," agricultural "waste," human "waste," municipal "waste," "biowaste," and on and on. Yet, our long-term survival as a species requires us to learn to live in harmony with our host planet. This also requires that we understand natural cycles and incorporate them into our day to day lives. In essence, this means that we humans must eliminate waste altogether. As we progressively eliminate waste from our living habits, we can also progressively eliminate the word "waste" from our vocabulary. We can start with the term "human waste."
"Human waste" is a term that has traditionally been used to refer only to human excrements, namely fecal material and urine, which are by-products of the human digestive system. When discarded, these materials are colloquially known as human waste. When recycled for agricultural purposes, however, they're known by various names, including night soil (when applied raw to fields in Asia) and human manure or humanure. Humanure is not waste - it is a valuable organic resource material rich in soil nutrients, in contrast to human waste, which is a dangerous discarded pollutant. Humanure originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil, especially if converted to humus through the composting process. Admittedly, humanure is not as benign and easy to work with as grass clippings, but when properly recycled, it makes a wonderful soil additive.
Human waste (discarded feces and urine), on the other hand, creates significant environmental problems, provides a route of transmission for disease, and deprives humanity of valuable soil fertility. It's also one of the primary ingredients in sewage, and is largely responsible for much of the world's water pollution.
A clear distinction must be drawn between humanure and sewage. Sewage can include waste from many sources (industries, hospitals, and garages, for example) as well as the host of contaminants that seep from these sources (industrial chemicals, heavy metals, oil, and grease, for example). Humanure is strictly human fecal material and urine.
What, in truth, is human waste? Human waste is cigarette butts, plastic six-pack rings, styrofoam clamshell burger boxes, deodorant cans, disposable diapers, worn out appliances, unrecycled pop bottles, wasted newspapers, junk car tires, spent batteries, most junk mail, nuclear contamination, food packaging, shrink wrap, toxic chemical dumps, exhaust emissions, the five billion gallons of drinking water we flush down our toilets every day, and the millions of tons of organic material discarded into the environment year after year after year.
Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing,
PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.