Escape from the waste land

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, September 1, 2016
Adjust font size:

Every challenge is also an opportunity in disguise. One of the biggest and unaddressed challenges facing modern society is how to deal with the wastes created, for example, by our "throw-away" and 24/7 society. If we can systematically, consciously and seriously tackle the challenge in all of its many ramifications, we may not only improve and enrich ourselves, but save our planet.

Waste is a multi-dimensional problem. It includes the obvious-- environmental waste, food and other household waste, nuclear waste and construction waste; it also incorporates the often unseen and silent aspects- wasted time, unfulfilled human potential and squandered opportunities.

Examples of the "obvious" physical wastes abound. For example, it is estimated that China produces approximately 50 billion pairs of chopsticks a year. Most are made of wood, used once and thrown away at a tremendous cost to the environment. Reusable chopsticks have a much longer lifespan and by using them we could significantly reduce waste.

In the case of food, studies indicate that up to 40-50% of the food we produce never gets eaten, but is thrown away. In today's mass production economy, manufacturing, capitalism and our preference for the "new", the "now", the "quick and easy" is promoted by a philosophy of planned obsolescence. Unfortunately, this results in significant waste. Similarly, a fear of litigation results in perfectly edible food being discarded.

While we spend hours debating alternative forms of energy and sometimes promote renewable energy, by every measure the biggest gains are to be made in conserving, i.e. reducing the wastage in the energy we use in our daily lives.

Energy loss is not confined to materials or the environment. Our failure to focus on early childhood education causes us to lose much of our human potential by failing to achieve full development during those critical years of brain formation. In workplaces, poor management leads to millions of people underperforming.

There is considerable waste in an economic model where the top 100 richest people in the world are wealthier than the bottom half of the population. That's a waste of human potential.

Benjamin Franklin wrote: "Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of." One of the biggest "wastes" in society is our waste of time, especially our slavery to the here and now, the urgent, but unimportant. There is too little time taken for solitude, for reflection, for serious conversation about the important, but non-urgent matters of life.

Related to wasted time is wasted opportunity. I have never met a person, including myself who does not rue some lost opportunities. The young, especially, innocently assume that opportunities passed by will easily come again. However, as I get ever closer to my 70th year, I realize now that there are many experiences I wish I'd pursued that will never come again.

Possible solutions

1. Understanding. Challenges first require understanding from diverse perspectives-philosophical, historical, political, economic, cultural, sociological, environmental and legal. One aspect that should receive greater priority is the importance of design and system. For example, in our manufacturing and development of products, we should move away from linear models that lead to junkyards and landfills as products reach their used-by date. Cities, factories and other organizations should be designed, as far as possible to produce zero waste, with an emphasis on cycles of re-use and new uses.

2. Governments and Communities. If we are to be serious about wastes, leadership and shared responsibility must come from all levels. For example, international bodies such as the UN must develop the treaties, conventions and other mechanisms to take action across national borders and establish standards and protocols that operate universally. National governments must support the development of legislation and a framework to promote innovation and design applications that focus on zero waste and efficient recycling.

3. Households. Ultimately, waste elimination and management must be adopted at family and individual levels.

4. Laws. Our legal system as well as soft law such as industry standards must promote environmental justice, adherence to international waste conventions and treaties, and sound regulatory and stakeholder involvement in and responses to waste at all levels, including supply chains that operate across national borders.

5. Education. Universities and schools must ensure the next generation incorporates environmental justice and sustainability into its values and way of life.

6. Business. Corporations need to focus less on short term profits and take a long term view. Sustainability and social responsibility must be taken seriously with businesses held accountable for measurable outcomes. Business must partner government and local communities to develop systems for recycling and waste elimination as well as innovation leading to greater sustainability.

7. Technology. Technology, like law, is both a problem and a solution to waste. E-waste from old computers and other technology is a major problem. At the same time, technology is central to analyzing problems and devising better designs to work towards a zero-waste systems development. An example is the recent work being done by MIT to use robots to probe city sewers to ascertain crucial information about public health: Individuals. As individuals, each person has a moral responsibility to become all that it is possible to become. Failure to fulfil that duty will result in a personal 'waste land' in which we have become The Hollow Men described by poet TS Eliot:

        We are the hollow men

        We are the stuffed men

        Leaning together

        Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

       Our dried voices, when

       We whisper together

       Are quiet and meaningless

       As wind in dry grass

       Or rats' feet over broken glass

       In our dry cellar

Eugene Clark is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of


Follow on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.
Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Enter the words you see:   
    Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from