‘Zero waste’ has become the buzz word in the last decade or so for those interested in sustainability. As with many buzzwords, it can often be used for more promotional value and flashiness rather than actual substance. Corporates are known to frequently conduct CSR programs under the label ‘zero waste’, yet if you account for the entire process of marketing and coordinating these activities, you could make the case that more energy and waste would have been saved had the program not be done in the first place. So there is clearly still a disconnect between zero waste as a label and zero waste as a guiding philosophy.
At Urban Hijau, we have been trying to take this philosophy seriously and have made significant headway in waste reduction at our farm. Taking in our food waste donations is just a start. We are also concerned with plastic consumption and out staff tries to avoid single use plastics when possible for our activities. The deeper we go into zero waste though, the more we realize that it calls for a more broader outlook to practically implement it.
Unpacking Zero Waste
In permaculture, we consider waste as any sort of unutilized resource. So the prevalence of waste is a sign of a system deficiency, that resources or byproducts are not being properly accounted for in the production process. Yet we have to realize that the macrosystem we are operating in, one built largely on petrochemical energy use and infinite growth, is ultimately wasteful by design. It has placed its emphasis squarely on the side of producers who largely do not have to account for environmental externalities that the society and ecosystem pay for. The rate at which waste is created much of the time will outstrip even out best efforts at reduction sadly.
Does this mean that zero waste is a pipe dream? It depends on the perspective you take. It can be seen as an individual responsibility, where one focuses on your own or family waste outputs, from your kitchen greens to the plastic you use to household energy consumption, and you take measured steps to try to eliminate unneeded excesses. Curbing your own rate of consumption is a good beginning point.
At Urban Hijau, we view zero waste as an aspiration rather than a concrete end goal, simply because we accept certain ground realities related to the items we use that end up leaving our farm as a waste output. But by having a regular audit of our farm processes, we try to reduce steadily our own footprint over time.
A Higher Purpose: Carbon Surplus
A loftier and perhaps more worthy goal then for urban sustainability actors is to consider carbon surplus rather zero waste. While zero waste lays emphasis on simply cutting out the extraneous resource consumption, an unwieldly and often unfeasible task in a limited system, carbon surplus looks for system transformation. Carbon surplus concerns minimizing waste by upcycling, cycling energy and converting unused resource into useful matter. It sets objectives in more tangible terms of net carbon reduction rather than subjective waste measurement. So rather than simply try and avoid having to put items like fruit peels and veggie cuttings into the garbage and then the landfill, try instead to execute ways in which they can be converted into useful items like compost, mulch or fermented fertilizer.
Crucially, carbon surplus allows for wiggle room for allowing certain necessary processes that end up creating wasteful byproducts, yet can be accounted for by other components within the system that produce a net positive environmental effect by repurposing these byproducts.
The mindset switch we are advocating is to not view waste as waste, but as a potentially valuable item that requires innovation and initiative to make it useful for society again. In other words, carbon surplus is a way for humanity to clean up after itself.