Feb. 22, 2020

Why can we learn from nature?

I would like to contrast the notion of waste from the perspective of nature to the perspective of people.

Fortunately for us, and for all living things, organic remains decompose. They rot, decay, and break down into smaller pieces. Organic remains, such as a dead tree, are described as biodegradable. Everything made by nature returns to nature. Organic remains decompose because other living things feed on them. Organisms that feed upon organic remains are “nature’s recyclers.” They break down and recycle the nutrients in dead plants and animals, and their waste. Examples are bacteria, fungi, insects and other scavenging animals.

Organic remains contain nutrients. These nutrients end up being used again by living plants and animals. Nutrients are substances like vitamins, nitrogen, phosphorous and other minerals, which all living things need for growth and life. For example, nature’s recyclers feed on the wood from dead tree. They leave extra nutrients from the dead tree in the ground. After the tree is gone, other plants will grow in the same spot.

Nature’s waste does not get wasted at all. It gets reused, recycled.

In natural systems, there is NO waste.

For modern humans, waste is one of the most insidious issues of the industrial and technological revolutions. Because so much of what we produce is not biodegradable, waste will always be with us. Not just in landfills, but also in our water, soil, food, air and in our body’s organs, tissues and cells. More than 60,000 untested chemicals pervade the consumer products on the shelves and in our homes. Rachel Carson warned us decades ago about the dangers of the petrochemical industry and the chemicals that are not compatible with life. These chemicals never go away. I could go on about these issues, but for this blog, I want to focus just on our day to day waste.

I will start by talking about my childhood. I remember all my grandmothers and aunts kept a container in the kitchen for food scrapes. Those never went in the trash can, they were composted or used for animal feed. My great aunt who lived on a farm actually sorted her trash into what could be burned like paper and cardboard and what had to be washed and reused or what had to actually go to the farm dump. Plastic containers were their version of Tupperware. All plastic containers were washed and reused. Coke bottles, always glass, were taken back to the store and traded out for the next purchase of colas (or a nickel each-my brother and I gathered them for extra candy money). Mayonnaise containers became glasses we used to take cold drinks outdoors. My great-grandmother who survived the depression raising 7 children, actually washed and reused her aluminum foil, not hitting the trash can until it was torn or too tattered. Many of the metal containers were given to the men to store hardware, nails, screws, bolts and nuts. And people fixed things instead of throwing them away, often using parts from one thing to another. Very little was wasted.  

 But that was the old days. According to the EPA, Americans generate over 250 million tons of trash each year. According to a study by Columbia University, Americans trash seven pounds of material per person every single day—that’s 2,555 pounds of material per American (300 million of us) every year. Right now, most of that trash doesn’t get recycled or composted. Instead, it ends up in landfills and incinerators, polluting the communities that house these facilities- exacerbating our climate crisis and deteriorating the health of the ecosystem and in turn, health of people.  

We have become so habituated to paying for services and goods that we also pay to deal with our trash instead of using it as resources. Even human waste can be used as fertilizer for our crop and grazing lands if properly treated. Manure is not waste- it is nitrogen and microbiota that makes healthy soils, healthy grasses and crops. A staggering 90 percent of all raw materials extracted in the U.S. are ultimately dumped into landfills or burned in incinerators. Those materials should be reused to make new products, but because they’re destroyed, more and more natural resources are extracted every day. Our consumer paradigm surrounding what we consider waste needs adjusting. We are thinking linearly as if we were on a factory conveyer belt. It’s time to think more like nature- in cycles. Nature is efficient and effective and also sustainable. I don’t know why we can’t let mother nature teach us a thing or two.