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What a Waste

What a Waste

Our modern industrial economy traces a straight line from resource extraction to manufacturing to sales to waste disposal. Since Earth has finite resources and limited ability to absorb pollution, the straight-line economy is unsustainable; it is designed for eventual failure.

Why not make the economy circular, with waste from one process feeding into other production processes, thus dramatically reducing the need both for resource extraction and for the dumping of rubbish? We should mimic nature: it’s a central ideal of the ecology movement, with roots in indigenous wisdom worldwide. Doing so requires that we reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle—and replace nonrenewable resources with renewables wherever possible.

The circular economy is needed now more than ever. America alone currently produces almost 235 million tonnes of waste per year from homes and businesses, which works out to almost 4 kilograms per person per day. But that’s only 3 percent of all the solid waste in the US economy; the other 97 percent is generated by agricultural and industrial (e.g., mining and manufacturing) processes. If the total US waste stream (including wastewater) is allotted on a per capita basis, each American is responsible for 1.8 million kilograms of waste per year.

Only about a third of waste from homes and businesses is recycled; the rate for industrial waste is much lower, with only 2 percent of the total waste stream currently being recycled. Meanwhile, the 2,000 active landfills in the US that hold the bulk of household trash are reaching their capacity. The US is among the highest waste-producing nations of the world on a per-capita basis, and the federal government has no strategy for dealing with the problem.

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