The Waste Cycle

“Life did not take over the world by combat, but by networking.” --Lynn Margulis

What You Will Do

  • Recognize waste in systems, assess personal impacts, and understand the sources and causes of waste, from a personal to a global scale.
  • Recognize and mitigate the effects of toxic and challenging waste, using bioremediation.
  • Learn how community can join to address waste and environmental injustice.
  • Include systemic awareness of waste flow as part of your permaculture design and decision-making process.
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Our current mainstream resource pattern is wasteful, to the point of annihilation

This section by Mandy Merklein and Meiling Colorado

Understanding, redefining, and addressing waste is at the heart of permaculture design and integral to your final design project. Waste can reveal design flaws, and provides an opportunity to better assess and create more efficient resource cycles. Waste is an opportunity. In this module, we will explore strategies to address waste on your site, and ways to design systems where nothing goes to waste.

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Waste stream alternatives visioned by Heather Jo Flores and rendered by Katie Shepherd

Using permaculture design to understand and address the root causes and impacts of waste

Permaculture discourages waste on principle. Much of permaculture is inspired by observing natural systems. The activities of species in coevolved systems do not appear wasteful because any ‘waste’ they create provides opportunities for others in the context of the natural systems on which they depend. In effect, waste does not exist in these natural systems.

There are cultures that appear less wasteful than our current industrial one. They have coevolved over time within the benefits and constraints of the environments they depend on. They are often guided by principles that acknowledge and celebrate the connections offered through natural webs and cycles.

These communities find wisdom from feedback loops and tend to create little waste. They value community and nature, rather than materialism, and acknowledge that to ignore interdependence can cause harm, and loneliness.

Most current economic models are not guided by the insights offered through natural system based thinking, cycles or limits. Modern industrial societies driven by a “more is better” mentality have expanded their capacity to stretch past their original limits to growth, while ignoring feedback loops.

Technologies conveniently remove the burden of dealing with the consequences of our actions. What often occurs in these apparent linear designs is that the feedback loops just cycle back somewhere else, or later on to future generations.

The toilet water we flush doesn’t just go away. Neither do the single-use plastics we toss in the bin, any more than burying toxic or nuclear waste makes it just disappear. It’s just a question of time before leaks seep back through the system, often with an accumulated vengeance, causing serious consequences for our environment, ourselves and future generations.

Some of these feedback loops have kicked in sooner than we thought, meaning that current generations will witness the impacts, too. Faced with the undeniable and unavoidable impacts of our wasteful production and consumption behaviors, pressure has been put on governments to solve various waste problems. The responses tend to be reactionary, addressing crises one by one as if they were unrelated, through various innovative technological fixes from more recyclable plastics to fighting climate change with artificial CO2 sinks. However clever the technology, if it is not guided by wisdom, it will not address the root causes of waste flow.

We may be tempted to do the same in our lives and project design. The internet abounds with engaging how to videos, resources and information on how to avoid, treat and mitigate waste problems. But permaculture design offers so much more than a series of clever techniques and strategies. Systems thinking used in permaculture invites us to embrace the whole cycle, the impacts, the feedback loops, recognizing all as equally valuable. It is an inclusive process.

​Rather than asking how can I fix a series of waste problems, one after the other, we can ask why does this system create waste in the first place?

What are the design flaws, and how can we address them? Instead of continually bailing water, we figure out why the ship is sinking. Otherwise, we will just keep bailing until we exhaust ourselves.

​Whole system waste analysis

One way to identify the flaws that create waste is to recognize design or behavior that is not aligned with holistic thinking, permaculture ethics and principles. Running decisions through a whole system waste analysis and checking them against your vision and mission should help avoid chronic waste problems. The scale of the design should not matter, the same patterns apply to your home, your design, and to society as a whole.

Here are some flaws that can lead to waste:

  • Linear thinking on a finite planet or site. Not recognizing natural loops and cycles.
  • The idea that resources are infinite and waste just goes away.
  • Externalizing costs. Systems where discarding, devaluing resources and unconscious behaviors are convenient. Ignoring impacts and embedded costs.
  • Not creating value or creatively recognizing opportunity in closed loop systems.
  • Measuring and promoting worth primarily through growth of material production and consumption, as fast as possible.​

Questions that can help guide your design away from these errors and avoid waste:

  • Am I aware of my resource use? Where does it come from, where does it go? What are the embedded costs?
  • Are the resources valued through their whole cycle while on my site, including before they arrive into my design and after they leave it? Avoid resources in your design that cannot meet this condition.
  • Am I creating a design that conveniences and rewards wastefulness or one that encourages and rewards value, ethics, and consciousness?
  • What opportunities and treasures am I missing in my resource loops? Apply permaculture principles from obtain a yield to use and value renewable resources.
  • How can I support values other than consumerism that enrich my life and design, encourage creativity, and provide abundance for the things important to me: Time, health, connection, consciousness.
  • Is the principle produce no waste a part of my vision, mission and decision-making process?
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A flow chart can help us work through the complexity of waste management. By thinking about waste flows in more detail we can identify the most appropriate ways to avoid, make use of or reduce the harm of particular materials.

The problem of waste indeed offers us a solution.

Like a warning symptom of a chronic disease, waste invites us to change our lifestyle, to one where we value connection and welcome feedback, an opportunity to heal our lives and the planet. We can each move to create households, design projects and lives that better reflect a sense of congruence in our values and actions. Together we can create cultures that do not exhaust and extinguish themselves through waste and ignorance, or cause unnecessary suffering to the beings with which we share the planet. Instead we can thrive, resilient, aware, and connected, and able to respond to change creatively.

Closing the soil and food loop: reducing and reusing food waste ​

No such thing as waste in a garden

We love food. Let’s make sure it doesn’t get wasted!

By growing your own food, you can cut down immensely on many forms of waste. This is true throughout the whole cycle from seed to plate and back into the garden. What waste can be avoided by simply growing tea herbs and sprouts on a windowsill or in the garden?

Here are just a few ways gardening reduces waste:

  • Less or no packaging: Your garden food comes unwrapped.
  • Less transport: The closer to the kitchen the better.
  • Less energy for refrigeration.
  • Repurposing: You can make your own planters, seed trays, and tools. We use toilet paper rolls, egg cartons, cardboard boxes etc. as biodegradable seed pots.
  • Make planters on your porch or balcony from recycled pallets, bath tubs etc.
  • Less water and solid waste: Industrial agriculture wastes both water and soil at an alarming rate. In our gardens we can protect and build soil with food scraps, and water frugally and effectively.​
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Ollas, buried unglazed clay pots that don’t waste water.

More ways to reduce waste in your food system:​

  • Water-wise gardening.  In southern Spain, where I live, water is at a premium. We reduce water use and waste in the garden by selecting seed and tree varieties that are suited to the dry climate, or by growing plants in guilds that provide shade in the summer. We also use buried ollas and unglazed clay pots, made locally with biodegradable materials, that provide water when needed, with no surface runoff or evaporation, and no water wasted.
  • Composting. Yard waste is potential compost and mulch materials. Larger biomass such as logs and tree branches can be added to hugelkultur mounds or used to make biochar to add to your compost or garden. What might seem like a problem is really an opportunity to improve and create nutritious soils for our gardens.
  • Can’t grow it yourself? Buy local! Like growing at home, it will cut back on wasteful packaging, lower your carbon footprint on transport, and support the local economy by not leaking money outside of the community.
  • Eschew packaging. If you buy from a store, avoid waste by buying in bulk and using your own containers and bags. If necessary, choose the least environmentally detrimental packaging. Buy blemished, odd sized or shaped, and very ripe produce to reduce waste load in the landfill and save money.
  • Share the harvest. Drawing on the third permaculture ethic, we can cut down on waste and share surplus food. Donating food to neighbors and food banks and sharing meals is an integral part of permaculture. 
  • Compost other people’s waste. Food scraps from restaurants and community events can be brought home and incorporated back into your own garden soil. You can also feed food scraps to your chickens and pigs for a return of manure for composting, eggs, good company, and if you eat meat, that too. A Bokashi system allows you to convert cooked food waste into a soil enhancement (through an anaerobic fermentation process) that can include meat and cooked food, and provide you with useful fertilizer for your plants.
  • Save your seeds. Think back to the module on Holistic Seed Stewardship and Rowen’s advice on including seed growing as part of your garden. By growing, saving and exchanging seeds we can help stop the loss of food biodiversity and build local resilience. In her book, Seed Sovereignty, Food Security: Women in the Vanguard of the Fight against GMOs and Corporate Agriculture, Vandana Shiva shares stories of women saving seed around the world. We eliminate food waste through the whole cycle from seed, to plant, to plate and back to compost and seed.
Starting a garden with toilet paper rolls.

​Closing the water cycle, wasted water and water waste

Water is a renewable resource but there is not an infinite supply of drinking water, and it is being depleted and degraded globally through wasteful practices at an alarming rate. Waterways are often used as disposal sites for waste. Water shortages and contamination mean many major cities such as Cape Town are facing a serious crisis (read more here).

Much of the world struggles to have access to clean water. The “produce no waste” permaculture ethic seems particularly prudent when it comes to water. Amy Stross provides details about wise water collection, use and reuse in the Water module. In this section, we will review how to reuse waste water and address mitigating contaminated water with plants a little further on.

Recycling or reusing wastewater.

How much waste water can we reuse? In many systems, all of it. Especially if we have a garden. As Amy has mentioned when designing a greywater system it is particularly important to think of context. The permaculture principles come in really handy here: Observe, take small and slow solutions, obtain a yield etc. It’s wise to start by seeing where you can cut down use. Before re-plumbing your home, or jumping into a complex greywater reed bed design, consider carefully that systems that are complex and maintenance heavy are often abandoned.

At Escola Kumar, where I live, we have used greywater by pouring sink, dishwashing, and shower waste water collected from buckets, into mulch basins around trees or even into the toilet to flush or for mopping floors. You can collect water from your bathroom sink by placing a bucket under the sink and removing the sink trap. You can buy or make a toilet tank lid with a built-in sink that runs gray water into the toilet. Water created from an evaporative air conditioner or dehumidifier can also be collected for reuse.

There are many excellent resources on the internet on greywater. In 1999 Laura Allen and Cleo Woelfle-Erskine started a practical greywater activist movement in California. Calling themselves the “Guerrilla Greywater Girls”, they were joined later by Christina Bertea and Andrea Lara (both plumbers by trade). It has evolved into a movement called Greywater Action, and their website has excellent resources and videos including one I recommend you review about diverting wastewater to your garden.

Composting toilet

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?

Hygienic capture, treatment, and cycling of human waste

​Flushing drinking water down toilets is an example of painfully poor resource design. In most modern cities, toilets are the largest single use of household’s indoor water consumption, comprising roughly 30% of water used. The good news is there are many viable solutions that provide safe toilets that don’t waste water, as well as safe solutions for people who are not connected to a municipal sewage system.

Low water use flush toilets. 

Ideally we don’t create blackwater at all, but most modern homes do. We can start to counter this by using less water. By replacing an old toilet with a low flush toilet, a family of four people can save up to 80,000 litres of water a year, and even more with a high efficiency model.

Innovations and incinerating toilets. 

These new designs include solar powered toilets that reuse water and turn human waste into hydrogen gas that then produces energy. Some of them are able to treat human waste on site without external energy or water. Virginia Gardiner, innovator and CEO of Loowatt describes one example here. These are not DIY, low budget, local operations, and need to be maintained regularly and skillfully. However, they are being successfully implemented in high rise apartments and in poorer areas with no sewage infrastructure in place. They are also creating whole new business opportunities, truly following the principle of obtaining a yield on multiple levels.


Biogas digester technology turns a problem (organic waste and methane) into a solution (biogas resource) by using anaerobic bacteria to break down organic waste (including human or animal black water) to produce usable biogas and liquid fertilizer. The anaerobic digestion takes place in a closed tank in the absence of oxygen. The biogas can be used to produce electricity or as fuel for cooking. Biogas digesters can be built to scale according to demand: Family homes, farms or to large community size. Some cities have municipal systems for collecting waste and converting it via biodigestion into electricity, fertilizer and other uses. Here is an interesting report from EVS Team, Global Ecovillage Network 2017, Ängsbacka, Sweden: Biogas and Biogas Digester Introduction

Vermicomposting flush toilets. 

Struggling to wean people from their love of flush toilets? Combine a normal looking flush toilet with composting! This article How to Make a Vermicomposting Flush Toilet, by Wendy Howard in Permaculture Magazine, describes a composting toilet system with a flush toilet, a worm composting bin and a filter bed. Water is used but not wasted, and the field is given nutrient dense organic matter. The primary challenge in this situation was getting permission.


Dry and composting toilets.

Perhaps the most common, accessible and simple solution to install and use is a dry composting toilet. They come in many shapes and designs. A really simple option is a bucket system. All you need is a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat. You add carbon based material such as cardboard, straw, or even biochar or Bokashi into the bucket every few days. When the container is full, empty it into a designated human manure compost and allow it to decompose. There are several excellent resources on dry toilets. Laura Allen and colleagues, from Greywater Action, have a short summary about composting toilets here.

Urine diversion toilet/ separating out liquid gold. 

Another improvement in human waste management can be achieved by separating urine using a urine diversion toilet or UDT. The bowl usually has two separate receptacles and the urine can be diverted for use as fertiliser without a composting step if it is properly handled. Human urine is usually free of pathogens, sterile and high in nitrogen.

How to use urine:

  • Dilute with water (8 parts water to 1 part urine) and add directly to garden.
  • Use urine to activate your compost.
  • Divert to grey water system.

Avoid using urine:

  • From people taking antibiotics or other drugs.
  • On the same part of the garden too often.

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.

Making furniture out of pallets

​Wasted stuff: designers needed!

Natural systems can be amazingly efficient at breaking down human biodegradable waste into something useful. Analogously, industry has improved at making new stuff out of materials designed to resist degradation. You can’t compost plastic bottles or cell phones, so what do you do with them once they have served their purpose? And what about everybody else’s? The sheer magnitude of plastic waste being pumped out of modern consumer lifestyles is increasingly alarming as we begin to realize the pervasive presence of plastics in our environment. Plastic waste is not good for environment or people.

A tool caddy made from scrap wood

See if you can use these “R” strategies, some of which are probably familiar to you, in your design:

Refuse. Simply refuse to receive unnecessary items (even if they are free) or buy stuff that is not reusable, compostable or recyclable.

Say no to:

  • Plastic bottles and bags.
  • Plastic packaging.
  • Junk mail.
  • Stuff with high embedded costs.

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!

Reduce. Cut back on things. Declutter. Conserve. Simply use less water, soap, electricity, gas, etc.

Repair. 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.

Reuse. ​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.

Repurpose. 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.

Nina’s bag made from 500 plastic bags.

Rot. 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.

Recycle. 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.

Rethink. 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.

This old bathtub makes a handy gopher-proof planter

Redesign. 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.

Reinvent. ​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.A tool caddy made from scrap woodBookshelves made from recycled palletsNina’s bag made from 500 plastic bags.This

Waste-free cooking on a solar cooker

​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:
  • Many plastics, particularly when they’re exposed to sunlight, water, and high temperatures, leach toxic chemicals like bisphenol A (or BPA), vinyl chloride, or phthalates which are hazardous to human health. 
  • Tires can release toxic compounds into the soil, including carcinogenic hydrocarbons. They look kinda cool for growing stuff in but…gross.
  • If you’re using a galvanized metal container (such as an old wash tub, trash can, tool box, etc.) be careful: Zinc (an essential nutrient) and cadmium (a toxic heavy metal) can leach into the soil when it’s exposed to the right acidic conditions.
  • Avoid lead paint on old reclaimed wood.
  • Avoid pressure treated wood. The chemicals forced into wood during the pressure treating process are copper, chromium, and arsenic.
  • Avoid using railroad ties or sleepers in garden beds, as creosote is composed of over 300 chemicals, many of them toxic and persistent in soil. 
  • Check pallets. Some, especially older ones, are treated.
  • Stone, brick, untreated wood such as cedar, and organic or non-treated straw bales are safer options for raised beds.
tire crops

Repurposed tyres as planters for salad? No thanks!

​Energy and waste: a need for accountability and holistic design

We use a lot of energy to produce and discard all of our…stuff. Most of this energy comes from the combustion and processing of fossil fuels, which has created one of the most damaging existential waste impacts in the history of humans on our planet. The burning of fossil fuels releases, among other airborne wastes, carbon dioxide and methane, which are primary drivers of climate change.

The costs associated with energy waste and damages are often hidden, externalized, and spread out to impact so many aspects of our lives, that it is hard to recognize the source of all the devastation it is causing: Poor health, environmental degradation, and even war. Radioactive waste has seeped into our environment from a growing number of disastrous accidents, including Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently Fukushima.

The spent fuel from nuclear reactors is an extremely expensive and dangerous waste to burden future generations with, especially given that there is no proven technology for safe long term storage of nuclear waste. Anything we can do to lower demand and reliance on these unsustainable and harmful forms of energy is worthwhile. This is where permaculture design can come in: Offering ethically guided, well designed, decentralized home and community scale energy design, as well as large-scale solutions that address our energy needs and eliminate our energy waste problem.

Burning Trash: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

This is an example of innovation that is not necessarily guided by holistic thinking. Remember how we are running out of space at our landfills? Well, many landfills are turning to incineration of solid waste as a solution for both getting rid of garbage and creating energy.

Garbage is now burned at special waste to energy plants that use the heat from the fire to make steam for generating electricity or to heat buildings. In 2015, over 75 waste to energy power plants burned about 29 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW), and generated nearly 14 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, in the United States alone.

Many landfills also generate electricity by using the methane gas that is produced from decomposing biomass in landfills. Seems rather clever, and it can help cut down volume in the unsightly landfills. However, a whole systems analysis exposes some weakness:

  • Expensive to build and maintain.
  • Releases dangerous chemicals e.g. dioxins.
  • Reliant on constant high flow of waste.

The technology for renewable low waste energy exists and is gaining support, in part from global initiatives such as the Paris Climate Accord. Renewables are becoming competitive against fossil fuels on the market, offering new jobs and business opportunities, and creating more resilient and cleaner communities.

There are so many innovative ways to bring clean energy into our lives. We don’t need to wait for international policy agreements or industrial high-tech breakthroughs on energy production to start reducing energy use in our lives and project designs. We can have a big impact on lowering our contribution by cutting back on energy waste starting right now.

Taking the waste out of energy in our homes and projects.

The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but we know from experience that it can be wasted considerably in our day-to-day life. You can assess your carbon footprint using various calculators online for both personal lifestyles and small farm applications. If you want to raise awareness of the energy seepages in you lifestyle, you can see how you measure up, and if you can reduce your carbon footprint. By doing so you will gain insight that could help you participate in the fight against climate change.

Cutting back on waste with Hashauna

In many ways, the patterns of response to reducing and eliminating energy waste are similar to those of addressing water and other similar resource flows through our systems. Observe and assess, and then act based on the cost, your vision, priorities, benefit analysis and whole design. Check for leaks in the system by simply turning off lights and appliances, and watch for phantom load (leaky electrical trickle from appliance left on standby). Reduce, reuse and recycle energy, and where you can, create and harvest your own, much the same as collecting rainwater.

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.

Designing for waste flow at Escola Kumar.

For fun, we draw on Jean Pain’s idea of creating energy from compost waste and run a hose through our compost to create hot water from the heat produced. This can be done on a larger scale with wood chips,  producing hot water for months at a time, even in the chill of a Vermont winter. We have friends in the temperate and even arctic climate who heat their greenhouses with compost generated heat or hot water during winter.

​Review this suggested list of ways to tighten up energy waste flow and apply them to your design and to your lifestyle. Make the switch! Remember the principles and apply them: catch and store energy, obtain a yield, reduce use and apply self regulation, use passive and renewable energy sources, creatively respond to change, produce no waste, and so forth. Bring your life, project design and community to energy sanity!

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This is a human waste treatment facility! Check out this article

​Cleaning up toxic waste: Bioremediation, fungi, mycoremediation, bacteria, and wise use

​How can we use natural systems to address the waste contamination in soil and water?

Naturally occurring microbes found in biomass, compost and compost tea can be used to improve contaminated soils. Elaine Ingham, soil biologist, (, promotes the use of aerobically managed compost, with its diverse mix of microorganisms, to improve contaminated soils. Scientists are finding that microbes, plants and fungi can break down hazardous materials including heavy metals, hydrocarbons, PCBs, high sulfur coal, sewage sludge and even nuclear waste, through bioremediation.

beb0114dd5581ac9ef309fb8da1714dd 1 orig

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. 

Microbial remediation uses microbes such as bacteria to remove soil contaminants and pollutants. The microbes eat and digest contaminants, usually changing them into water and harmless gases such as carbon dioxide and ethene. Japanese researchers have published a report in the journal Science, that described a species of bacteria that can use plastic as a food source. Normally, PET plastic takes 450 years to completely degrade in the environment. Their investigations found the bacteria almost completely degraded PET plastic within six weeks. Nature has begun to evolve a plastic eating bacteria.

Biofiltration is a new technique, that is helping to clean air from industrial gases by passing polluted air over a culture containing microorganisms. They degrade contaminants into, for example, carbon dioxide, water or salts, eliminating the need for chemical scrubbing.​​

Mitigation. Contaminated soil doesn’t have to mean no farming or gardening. Some urban farmers put in raised beds, add plenty of compost and new topsoil to avoid contaminants. We have done the same in urban school gardens. Place garden beds away from walls to avoid higher risk of lead from old paint, and from roadsides to avoid pollutants from cars. It is wise to get your soil tested, and be careful, but it need not stop you from growing plants you love and healing the earth.

trash in ocean
Our whole-system designs need to include efforts to remediate the large scale damage done by humans to the planet.

​Not for wasting: time, money, opportunity, people and community

We have reviewed waste in many forms including, food, water, energy, and stuff. There are other very important things in life we can waste, such as time, money, opportunity, land, and people.

How do we evaluate if these precious resources are being wasted?

What are the indicators of leaks in the system?

Perhaps we can apply the same pattern tool we did for evaluating leaks in other resource systems. We can observe and assess to see if our use of the resource (money or time, for example) is bringing us towards or away from our vision.

​We can evaluate through the three ethics: is my use of money/time providing or preventing earth care, people care and fair share or future care?

​More questions to ask:

  • What are the inefficiencies and leaks in the resource flow?
  • Where, when, how, and why do I lose time/money?
  • What options are there to tighten things up?
  • What are my priorities?
  • What are the cost benefits?
  • Are the inputs balanced with outputs?

Form your own checklist to include as part of your observations and decision-making process around waste. For example, as part of the aspirations of cutting down waste at our demonstration site we might want to include solar energy, but if the time and money involved compromises our vision for another priority, we may choose to instead buy solar sourced energy from the grid.

There are some great references out there to help evaluate important questions concerning money and time for designs, such as those offered through Holistic Management See At Home with Holistic Management by Ann Adams.

Social permaculture offers us a way of considering and valuing people. Their well being, like that of the environment, is central to the success of a design. This is reflected on a community scale, through time banks, land banks, sharing talents and services through exchange groups such as Simbi, and many other tools that value time and human resources in more creative ways. In creating designs, we can consider who might be able to help and support us, and what opportunities may arise.

​The opposite of being wasteful of what life offers is appreciating it. If we orient our life, our projects and designs with the intention of honor and value, we are less likely to waste, on principle. Instead of focusing on checklists and reminders on how not to waste, we can design towards an increasing awareness, carefulness, and appreciation. From this orientation we are less likely to make choices that lead to waste. The whole experience is made so much easier if we don’t do it alone and can draw on supportive networks of friends, family and community. It then becomes a part of our shared culture.


​Economic strategies to help address waste and well being

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. 

Jules Breton Calling in the Gleaners Google Art Project
Jules Breton – Calling in the Gleaners

Waste Activists, a social movement, taking it to a community and global level.

​We can reuse, reduce, and recycle, we can compost, replumb to use greywater, switch to renewable power and insulate our house. We can also buy in bulk and avoid plastic bags and shun plastic bottles. But after all this, when we walk along the beach, we will likely still see just as much plastic, washed up from the sea. However much we lower our waste and carbon ecological footprint, we are still impacted by the billions of people we share this planet with.

Globalism meets Gaia, and that has driven the message home: We share the earth, are impacted and connected by the same larger natural cycles, in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the soil that provides us with food and by the waste we produce. Every day we wake up on a planet we share with millions of people who are struggling with environmental injustice. The data is clear: Negative repercussions of a wasteful society cause the most damage to the marginalized and the poor, who suffer at higher rates from the impacts of toxic wastes and pollution, and have lower access to the goods produced.

Waste is an environmental and social justice issue. It is at the root of the great suffering, conflict, and disempowerment experienced by the majority of humans. As much as we may strive to be self-reliant, in a safe eco-green permaculture sanity bubble, there are ultimately no isolated closed systems for humans on earth. What we do touches others, and what they do touches us.

Just as we can reduce our waste footprint, we can in turn increase our positive contribution to change by joining with others who are working hard together, creating a world of earth care, people care, fair share and future care.

We are not alone, and we can use our connection for powerful change. And powerful change it will need to be, because as we have reviewed in this module, we are up against harsh feedback loops created by a chronically wasteful cultural paradigm. Waste is more than an inconvenience, it is symptomatic of a very serious societal problem. Waste is fatal for humans, and the many beautiful living ecosystems that we share with other species, if not treated at its deepest root level.

To meet the global challenges that we face, from climate change to toxic waste to diminishing resources and social injustice, change needs to be systemic and holistic, i.e. integral in everything we do. People need to work together so it occurs at all levels and aspects of society, and in all regions of the world: Locally, regionally, and globally. We need to reorient our economic and social systems. But it requires more than an institutional revolution in our institutions.

We need a more collective vision of the world, that honors and values the ethics: Earth care, people care, fair shares and future care. A cultural shift from waste to wisdom. From linear to cyclical, from segregated to whole systems thinking. From wastefulness to mindfulness. As much as the corporate funded media would not want you to believe, it’s happening. The symptoms of awakening from crisis, to awareness, to action are all around us. People at the grassroots level are creating change in their lives, and then together in their communities.

We have the answers to our problems. We are developing answers to our technical problems. We have vision, amazing movements, organizations and people leading us to a better world. As I write and you read these words, thousands of people, organizations and movements are working toward a more just, environmentally resilient and less wasteful world.

screen shot 2019 11 11 at 7 48 27 pm
this picture depicts one of thousands of “recycling” warehouses around the world that are basically just giant landfills of baled packaging.

How to be a part of the solution

Skill up.

There are many resources and tools listed already in this permaculture design course, and more can be found through the Permaculture and Transition Towns movements and other community activist organizations and trainings (e.g. Black Permaculture Network, and Earth Activist Training). 

There are other community activist groups working for ecojustice and pollution controls, that may not even know about permaculture, and could benefit from your support and involvement. Join them and bring your permaculture knowledge with you. This is working the fertile edges and can result in powerful change.

Support community activism.

within your local permaculture group. If there is no such activity in your permaculture group, invite and encourage members to start. If you don’t have a local permaculture group or can’t get traction there, join other organizations doing community support work such as food banks, community composting and recycling, repair coops, barter and trade, food for homeless and shelter support, and time banks, water and soil testing, etc. Bring your permaculture knowledge with you to those groups.

Join and support local efforts.

to protect water, food, and air. Make sure your government representatives on local, regional, and national levels know what you want. Write letters, testify, protest, let leaders know you want clean reliable food, water and energy.

Join and support international efforts. 

on climate change, ocean protection, resource conservation, environmental justice, and other global environmental issues.

Support political candidates...

and platforms in line with permaculture ethics.

Gather others to educate 

community members about the importance of reducing waste using expressive arts, theater, music, dance, community celebratory events and fairs.

If you’re an introvert

you might enjoy the approach offered by Sarah Corbett, in her new book, How to Be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest. You could support efforts by writing to representatives and newspapers, and donating time and resources to organizations on the internet. Do a project with just a few dedicated friends instead of the whole tribe.

old trail school
This is also a sewage treatment facility

​Tying it all together: Including systemic awareness of waste as part of your permaculture design and decision-making process

The time has come to bring together all these considerations about waste and to incorporate them into your design project. How do we go about designing waste out of our lives and permaculture projects?

  • Include a commitment to reducing and eliminating waste in your vision and mission. Use this to guide your decision making.
  • Use the permaculture principles to observe, analyze, and check for waste and opportunities to patch leaks and close loops.
  • Assess your resource systems as we did in this module. Look at food, water, human waste, energy and materials. Include time, money and people required for broken cycles and leaks in the system. Measure and analyze for cost and benefits.
  • Research options and share ideas.
  • Prioritize which areas to work on first, considering time, costs, interest and talents, and other issues.
  • Design better waste flow systems.
  • Keep notes, observe outcomes, measure results, evaluate and adapt. Keep repeating the cycle. It’s a practice, not a goal.
Final Review Waste Video


Questions for Review

  1. What are primary wastes created on your site and in your community, and where do they go? Investigate, describe. (Try using flow charts)
  2. What wastes are externalized outside your community? What impacts do they have where they go? What does “away” mean, to you and your community?
  3. Think of waste in your design in terms of “source and sink.” Where does your waste come from, and where does it go? Can you divert it more often, and to greater effect? Which wastes could become opportunities, for you?
  4. Try to think of at least 25 ways to cut back on waste in your life or community. Include food, water and energy. Rate these by your estimate of their total impact and ease of implementation. Brainstorm them with your peers and stakeholders! Bonus: Which ones will you implement today?

Recommended Hands-On

Ideally, do the following activities with friends, neighbors, family or other people. The idea is to learn together and strengthen community and have fun doing it.

Part 1, Observe: personal waste audit

Use this guide ​to track and become aware of your personal waste patterns

Part 2, Interact: waste reduction plan.

  • Create a waste reduction plan based on observations from Part 1, your personal waste audit. 
  • Describe specific ways you could reduce your personal waste flow in three categories (water, energy and solid waste).
  • Synthesize your plan into a flowchart, mind map, or land map to include in your final design project.

More ways to learn and practice:

  • Take the challenge to have a zero waste day. Challenge your friends/family. Who can come closest to having a zero waste day? Now try it for two days. How about a week? Document your insights and experiences.
  • Make a worm bin or compost for organic waste, i.e. food scraps etc. Invite friends/family to help. Document.
  • Create an eco cleaner kit for your house. Explain to your family/friends why you made one, and how to make and use them.
  • Make a solar oven or hay box. Cook something in it.
  • Have an Upcycle Party. Invite friends to bring five things they were going to take to the dump and document how you all upcycled and reused them.
  • With friends, make musical instruments, art, and gifts with recycled materials.
  • Find an organization or event in your neighborhood that is working on waste and pollution issues and join them in at least one activity. What insight did you gain?
  • Make a mindmap of the waste flows in your community, for wastewater, garbage and recycling What impacts do they have? Create a mindmap of your utopian dream. How would you prefer waste to flow through your community? What would that look like?


More to Explore

Revisit the links in this class, and discover many more, in this curated list of resources.

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