What Is Waste?

You can waste a lot of things. Time. Energy. Potential. In addition, we produce several different kinds of waste. Environmental. Biological. Toxic.

But what exactly is it? By one definition, it is a substance that is not useful in a particular context. For example, a cell in our body takes in oxygen, and after metabolic changes, produces carbon dioxide as waste. The cell doesn’t need it. The carbon dioxide is taken by our blood stream to our lungs, where it is expelled as exhaust.

But while that carbon dioxide is not needed by our cells, plants need those molecules for growth. In a different context, our cells’ waste is not waste at all.

This cycle is repeated throughout the natural world. What is considered useless by one organism is a valuable resource for another.

So does that mean that waste is simply a matter or perspective? If there is a substance that one being considers useless, is it possible to find another that will make use of that material? Or are there some things that simply cannot be used in any other context?

In addition, there are the other definitions of the word waste. If I waste my time, that time is not a resource that can be retrieved by someone or something else. It is simply gone. Similarly, if an person wastes their potential, that isn’t a resource that is available to others.

Is there a common element to these two different uses of the word waste, between the ephemeral, like time or talent and the corporeal resource, like oxygen or carbon dioxide? In short, is it is just the same word being used for two different concepts?

What is waste? How should we think about our waste? How can we reduce it? Is waste ever useful and desirable?

Related questions: What is the value of inefficiency? What do we owe the future? How do you define success? What do we do about plastic?

1 thought on “What Is Waste?”

  1. As the question makes clear, in some cases, one organism’s waste is another one’s fuel.  And that balance is how things should be.  

    In fact, I’d say that a different word is needed in this case, as the word “waste” usually holds negative connotations:  unwanted, rubbish, unproductive.  Because if plant life uses the carbon dioxide I exhale to grow, that is a good thing, that should not be called waste.

    True waste, I believe, is a failure.  

    What good use is to come of the several giant garbage patches floating around in our oceans, much of the millions of square-miles of debris coming in the form of one-time-use plastic?  Or, how can we justify using non-renewable energy forms to fuel our indulgent — climate-changing — lifestyles, pumping excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into our atmosphere?  These are truly forms of waste.

    From a different angle, let me toss out a couple of stark examples of wasted human potential.  According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2018 there were 25.9 million refugees in the world.  Many of them will spend years in refugee camps with no country willing to provide them asylum.  And this is just a subset of the 70.8 million individuals who were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.  While these people have intrinsic value, an extreme injustice within their homeland has likely compromised their full potential.

    Whether it’s environmental waste or wasted human potential, one thing that makes it a discard, by definition, is that we often neglect to even try and find ways for restitution.  We should be planting trees — sinks/uses for carbon dioxide — like there’s no tomorrow.  Because while there is a tomorrow, we don’t know about our future and how long our planet will be habitable.  Or, we don’t want to think of the consequences of war, so we place the displaced in camps … out of sight, out of mind.

    The thing is, one of the best ways to solve the problem of waste is to confront it — to make it visible.  There can be no surer way to reduce the likelihood of reducing waste than to live with its consequences.

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