Waste Not Want

"WASTE: . . Spoil or destruction, done or permitted, to lands, houses, gardens, trees, or other corporeal hereditaments, by the tenant thereof. . . Any unlawful act or omission of duty on the part of the tenant which results in permanent injury to the inheritance . . ." Black's Law Dictionary

America is not only a land of industry and commerce, it's also a land of consumption and waste, producing between 12 and 14 billion tons of waste annually. Much of our waste consists of organic material including food residues, municipal leaves, yard materials, agricultural residues, and human and livestock manures, all of which should be returned to the soil from which they originated. These organic materials are very valuable agriculturally, a fact well known among organic gardeners and farmers.

Feces and urine are examples of natural, beneficial, organic materials excreted by the bodies of animals after completing their digestive processes. They are only "waste" when we discard them. When recycled, they are resources, and are often referred to as manures, but never as waste, by the people who do the recycling.

We do not recycle waste. It's a common semantic error to say that waste is, can be, or should be recycled. Resource materials are recycled, but waste is never recycled. That's why it's called "waste." Waste is any material that is discarded and has no further use. We humans have been so wasteful for so long that the concept of waste elimination is foreign to us. Yet, it is an important concept.

When a potato is peeled, the peels aren't kitchen waste — they're still potato peels. When they're collected for composting, they are being recycled and no waste is produced.

Composting professionals sometimes refer to recycled materials as "waste." Many of the people who are developing municipal composting programs came from the waste management field, a field in which refuse has always been termed "waste." Today, however, the use of the term "waste" to describe recycled materials is an unpleasant semantic habit that must be abandoned. Otherwise, one could refer to leaves in the autumn as "tree waste," because they are no longer needed by the tree and are discarded. Yet, when one walks into the forest, where does one see waste? The answer is "nowhere," because the forest's organic material is recycled naturally, and no waste is created. Ironically, leaves and grass clippings are referred to as "yard waste" by some compost professionals, another example of the persistent waste mentality plaguing our culture.

One organism's excrement is another's food. Everything is recycled in natural systems, thereby eliminating waste. Humans create waste because we insist on ignoring the natural systems upon which we depend. We are so adept at doing so that we take waste for granted and have given the word a prominent place in our vocabulary. We have kitchen "waste," garden "waste," agricultural "waste," human "waste," municipal "waste," "biowaste," and on and on. Yet, our long-term survival requires us to learn to live in harmony with our host planet. This also requires that we understand natural cycles and incorporate them into our day to day lives. In essence, this means that we humans must attempt to eliminate waste altogether. As we progressively eliminate waste from our living habits, we can also progressively eliminate the word "waste" from our vocabulary.

"Human waste" is a term that has traditionally been used to refer to human excrements, particularly fecal material and urine, which are by-products of the human digestive system. When discarded, as they usually are, these materials are colloquially known as human waste, but when recycled for agricultural purposes, they're known by various names, including night soil when applied raw to fields in Asia.

Humanure, unlike human waste, is not waste at all — it is an organic resource material rich in soil nutrients. Humanure originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil, especially if converted to humus through the composting process.

Human waste (discarded feces and urine), on the other hand, creates significant environmental problems, provides a route of transmission for disease, and deprives humanity of valuable soil fertility. It's also one of the primary ingredients in sewage, and is largely responsible for much of the world's water pollution.

A clear distinction must be drawn between humanure and sewage because they are two very different things. Sewage can include waste from many sources — industries, hospitals and garages, for example. Sewage can also contain a host of contaminants such as industrial chemicals, heavy metals, oil and grease, among others. Humanure, on the other hand, is strictly human fecal material and urine.

What, in truth, is human waste? Human waste is garbage, cigarette butts, plastic six-pack rings, styrofoam clamshell burger boxes, deodorant cans, disposable diapers, worn out appliances, unrecycled pop bottles, wasted newspapers, junk car tires, spent batteries, junk mail, nuclear contamination, food packaging, shrink wrap, toxic chemical dumps, exhaust emissions, discarded plastic CD disks, the five billion gallons of drinking water we flush down our toilets every day, and the millions of tons of organic material discarded into the environment year after year after year.

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