Keep waste out of waste water.
Greywater is a valuable resource but it can be degraded and made unfit for reuse. Just one quart of oil poured down a stormwater drain can contaminate 250,000 gallons of greywater!
Chemical cleaning products and bleach can also contaminate your graywater. Clean instead with natural materials such as vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda.
Blackwater (sewage) can contaminate greywater too. So avoid crossing greywater near pipes that carry blackwater in case they leak. So what do we do with blackwater?
How to use urine:
Avoid using urine:
Large scale use of urine is being implemented with success in agriculture, and there are some community level trials of managing these separated human waste resources.
For further exploration of the many advantages of using urine, see this excellent reference by Carol Steinfeld: Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants and information offered here: Urine-diverting dry toilet and at SSWM.
Simply refuse to receive unnecessary items (even if they are free) or buy stuff that is not reusable, compostable or recyclable.
Say no to:
What we don't buy we don't waste. There are movements like the voluntary simplicity movement and minimalism that aspire to cut back on waste. As the name implies, the zero waste movement takes it one step further. See these videos for an examples of zero waste living single and family size. And check out Rwanda’s 10+ years of zero plastic bags!
Cut back on things. Declutter. Conserve. Simply use less water, soap, electricity, gas, etc.
Buy things you can fix. Then fix stuff instead of throwing it away. Some innovative producers are making phones with parts that can be replaced when broken. Look for repair cafés where people share repair skills.
Buy second hand clothes, furniture, second hand everything. When you are done with something give it a new home rather than throwing it away. When you buy things, ensure they are well made and will last for generations. I still wear my dad’s old shirts that are about 30 years old and my 25 year old bike still works great. Antique furniture is cool and valuable and can often be found inexpensively at swap sales and flea markets. IKEA just doesn't make things like that now.
Here is where people get very creative. We have run very fun workshops on upcycling. Turn a pallet into furniture, a cigar box into a guitar, cut wine and beer bottles in half to make drinking glasses. There is a whole movement of reusing spent cooking oil to run cars.
If you like crocheting, you can take 500 plastic bags like my sister Nina did, and crochet them into a bigger, stronger, better bag. People are building whole houses with junk, using everything from tires to plastic bottles (check out earthships). You can make beautiful art, musical instruments, new clothes from old ones, old clothes into other useful stuff (e.g. felting old sweaters into blankets). The examples are endless. Be creative, have friends help, throw an upcycling party.
Compost organic waste into worm bins, compost or community recycling programs. If you do buy, try to buy items that are compostable, such as paper folders rather than plastic ones.
What you can do if you can't do the other R’s. It's a last resort and it has to be done right. Be thorough when you recycle. You may need to wash off food, separate by type, and bring things you want to recycle to certain drop sites.
If you do buy, buy things made from recycled materials. Our plastic bucket is made from recycled plastic, the paper I print on is recycled paper. This reduces the extraction of more raw materials, and helps close the loop for materials that are non biodegradable, like plastics. Here is a good guide to which plastics you can and can’t recycle and reuse.
Is there another way to get this item rather than buying it? Could I borrow it? Lend it? Swap it? Communal ownership of lawn mowers, bikes, cars, washing machines etc. is an example of rethinking consumerism. Here is another opportunity for creativity. Our reliance on mind-numbing convenience has really taken a lot of creativity and fun out of making, having and sharing stuff.
The heart of it all is that we need to redesign things with the ethics to guide us. The Cradle to Cradle movement encourages designing products from the ground up that don't require pollution generating technologies and can be reused many times without losing value or quality. And when discarded they have a place in either a natural or technological cycle, where they can be composted or used to create new things. To solve the massive waste problems that confront us as consumers, we need to demand and support the building of new economic systems that value the earth and people, and consider with respect and generosity the future generations.
You can reduce your waste footprint by making things instead of buying them (and save money too). From toothpaste to shampoo to cleaning products. You just need a few simple organic ingredients that you can compost and personalize. The Internet has loads of recipes. I can pretty much take care of all of these with a kit of vinegar, baking soda, white clay, citrus peels, olive oil, and some homemade soap.
Waste as an opportunity: a creative scavenger hunt.
On many a Sunday morning, my husband has gone to a local flea market, sometimes stopping at the curbside recycling and garbage bins in the local industrial area. He comes home with amazing treasures that were other peoples discards. I do the same, when I can, and I am constantly finding treasures that have been discarded. Instead of letting these items go to the dump as waste, we continue to make good use of them. We find chairs, tables, garden and building tools, metal buckets, rocket stove parts, cast iron grinders, barrels, rope, chain, rocks, pallets, and at least half a dozen paella pans. We find the experience of going to the flea market rewarding on other levels too. It's fun and requires creativity rather than the somewhat mindless shopping that normally occurs in conventional shops. And through the searching, bartering, and favor exchange process, relationships of mutual benefit and trust can be built.
A friend of mine helps run an exchange shop where people can bring their used household items and clothes, and exchange them for items there or for coupons for future needs. There are many innovative ways people employ and are developing to reuse and repurpose items. Need can be a good incentive for creativity. A delightful example is the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, where a community living on a dump in Paraguay created amazing instruments for their youths from trash. The youths in turn made beautiful music that opened doors for them, leading to journeys around the world. You can listen to some of their music and be inspired by the documentary Landfill Harmonic. Director Chavez says it well: “The world sends us garbage. We send back music. Human beings, youth, should not be wasted.”
Beware! Toxins to watch out for when repurposing resources for your home environment:
If you use recycled plastic tubs, rubber tires, and discarded wood in your garden, be careful and avoid anything that could be toxic. Examples:
At Escola Kumar, we aspire to implement off-grid energy production using solar and wind power. In the meantime our energy is purchased from an alternative energy coop that buys energy from renewable energy sources. We also use public transportation and bikes to get around and try to avoid flying. We capture solar energy by cooking with our solar stove and oven, and biochar stove. We use the sun to dry laundry, dehydrate food, and warm our water. We capture and store energy produced by using a hay box that keeps on cooking our food once it has been brought to temperature in the solar cooker.
Here's a glossary of terms (Google each one for a fun exploration!)
Phytoremediation uses living plants to handle contaminants in soils, sludges, sediments, surface water and groundwater. Brownfields to Greenfields guide to Phytoremediation includes tips on how to test your soil. For more details see this EPA Fact Sheet.
Mycoremediation uses fungi and mushrooms to break down pollutants. Fungi are natural recyclers. They excrete enzymes to digest decaying matter and these can also break down chemical bonds of large, organic molecules including diesel, PAHs and organochlorines, pathogens and fecal coliforms. Fungi are being used for stormwater runoff and industrial oil spills. Certain species are better matched to particular pollutants than others. For example, turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) can sequester mercury and organochlorines, and the garden giant mushroom (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) can remove E. coli. Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) can break down some types of oil and hydrocarbons.
There are dedicated economists who have been working to address the environmental harm and social injustices our unsustainable and waste producing society have caused. They recognize that linear economies, based on exponential exploitation and material production, don’t work no matter who is at the driver's seat: A capitalist or a socialist. That’s because they are not based on the realities of natural systems.
We need regenerative, circular economy models in which long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling are encouraged. Kate Raworth, of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, suggests in her book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, that instead of endless growth, the goal of economic activity should be “meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet”.
Instead of economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, we need economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow. This means changing our view of economy to include natural systems and societal well-being as a goal, rather than endless production of material. This brings environmental care and people care together. The challenge is how to put these ideals into policy and practice.