Waste is a human phenomena not found in nature. In rainforests, deserts, prairies, and wetlands, what is abandoned by one lifeform becomes food for the next. Because the waste of our ancestors was minimal and entirely organic it was easily absorbed by nature’s sinks: the flora, fauna, and variations of earth’s crust and biosphere that drive the material lifecycles characterizing this planet. In the last two hundred years, industrialization and the global scope of human activity have perpetuated an imbalance in this system. In the last 35 years alone, the average person has gone from generating 2.7 to over 4.4 pounds of waste per day. The things we abandon crowd our landfills and escape into ecosystems where they harm life and impair nature’s ability to provide us with the resources and services on which we rely. Waste is also an indication that we are losing value in a production process that fails to recapture the fiber, metal, timber, and other materials extracted at significant cost to investors, laborers, and the environment. Finally, wasteful societies risk losing a sense of value for the things that take time, work, and ingenuity to create. Preventing waste is a way to restore the balance between nature and society, maximize our resources, and reevaluate the things we make and buy.
Because waste can be associated with many stages of a product’s lifecycle, its prevention can take many forms. The first question is whether the product itself is a necessity. Consider the underlying goal of your purchase: the market is saturated with flashy things that provide little utility and only fleeting comfort.
Next, consider product qualities. Look for products labeled by one of the growing number of third-parties helping consumers make better choices. Also look for qualities reported by the manufacturer. Whenever possible, choose products that contain post-consumer or post-industrial recycled content. To prevent hazardous material from entering the waste stream, seek products that are non-toxic, acid-free, chlorine-free, or without volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Packaging accounts for roughly one-third of municipal waste. Though it is difficult to avoid, you can favor manufacturers who reduce packaging and use recycled and recyclable materials. Though sometimes more expensive, durable products minimize waste and can pay for themselves by avoiding early replacement. Finally, choose products that are recyclable or compostable.
- Satisfy a true need.
- Seek third-party certification.
- Look for post-consumer and post-industrial recycled content.
- Avoid hazardous materials: toxins, acid, chlorine, VOCs.
- Favor minimal and recyclable packaging.
- Factor durability into the cost.
- Use products that are recyclable or compostable.
Consumers can prevent waste through a variety of relatively simple practices. The three R’s are a familiar first step: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Also consider donating or exchanging items that are no longer needed. Composting food scraps is a good way to avoid waste and funnel valuable organic matter to producers of fertilizer. Whether in your office or home look for ways to conserve resources such as water, electricity, and heating fuels. Install low-flow sink and shower heads, turn off lights and appliances, and minimize the use of heating and cooling through appropriate dress and ventilation. Manufacturers can have the greatest impact by designing products that use resources efficiently, eliminate hazardous substances, and can be dissembled for reuse, recycled, or composted.
- Reduce what you buy and reuse what you have.
- Donate or exchange goods not in use.
- Recycle and compost applicable materials.
- Conserve resources such as water, electricity, and heating fuels.
- Design products that use fewer resources, do not contain hazardous material, and can be recycled or composted.