Why Waste?

By: Sam Vaknin

I. Waste in Nature

Waste is considered to be the by-product of both natural and artificial processes: manufacturing, chemical reactions, and events in biochemical pathways. But how do we distinguish the main products of an activity from its by-products? In industry, we intend to manufacture the former and often get the latter as well. Thus, our intention seems to be the determining factor: main products we want and plan to obtain, by-products are the unfortunate, albeit inevitable outcomes of the process. We strive to maximize the former even as we minimize the latter.

This distinction is not iron-clad. Sometimes, we generate waste on purpose and its fostering becomes our goal. Consider, for instance, diuretics whose sole aim to enhance the output of urine, widely considered to be a waste product. Dogs use urine to mark and demarcate their territory. They secrete it deliberately on trees, shrubs, hedges, and lawns. Is the dog's urine waste? To us, it certainly is. And to the dog?

Additionally, natural processes involve no intention. There, to determine what constitute by-products, we need another differential criterion.

We know that Nature is parsimonious. Yet, all natural systems yield waste. It seems that waste is an integral part of Nature's optimal solution and that, therefore, it is necessary, efficient, and useful.

It is common knowledge that one's waste is another's food or raw materials. This is the principle behind bioremediation and the fertilizers industry. Recycling is, therefore, a misleading and anthropocentric term because it implies that cycles of production and consumptions invariably end and have to somehow be restarted. But, in reality, substances are constantly used, secreted, re-used, expelled, absorbed, and so on, ad infinitum.

Moreover, what is unanimously considered to be waste at one time or in one location or under certain circumstances is frequently regarded to be a precious and much sought-after commodity in a different epoch, elsewhere, and with the advance and advantage of knowledge.

It is safe to say that, subject to the right frame of reference, there is no such thing as waste. Perhaps the best examples are an inter-galactic spaceship, a space colony, or a space station, where nothing "goes to waste" and literally every refuse has its re-use.

It is helpful to consider the difference in how waste is perceived in open versus closed systems.

From the self-interested point of view of an open system, waste is wasteful: it requires resources to get rid of, exports energy and raw materials when it is discharged, and endangers the system if it accumulates.

From the point of view of a closed system (e.g., the Universe) all raw materials are inevitable, necessary, and useful. Closed systems produce no such thing as waste. All the subsystems of a closed system merely process and convey to each other the very same substances, over and over again, in an eternal, unbreakable cycle.

But why the need for such transport and the expenditure of energy it entails? Why do systems perpetually trade raw materials among themselves?

In an entropic Universe, all activity will cease and the distinction between waste and "useful" substances and products will no longer exist even for open systems. Luckily, we are far from there. Order and complexity still thrive in isolated pockets (on Earth, for example). As they increase, so does waste.

Indeed, waste can be construed to be the secretion and expulsion from orderly and complex systems of disorder and low-level order. As waste inside an open system decreases, order is enhanced and the system becomes more organized, less chaotic, more functional, and more complex.

II. Waste in Human Society

It behooves us to distinguish between waste and garbage. Waste is the inadvertent and coincidental (though not necessarily random or unpredictable) outcome of processes while garbage is integrated into manufacturing and marketing ab initio. Thus, packing materials end up as garbage as do disposable items.

It would seem that the usability of a substance determines if it is thought of as waste or not. Even then, quantities and qualities matter. Many stuffs are useful in measured amounts but poisonous beyond a certain quantitative threshold. The same substance in one state is raw material and in another it is waste. As long as an object or a substance function, they are not waste, but the minute they stop serving us they are labeled as such (consider defunct e-waste and corpses).

In an alien environment, how would we be able to tell waste from the useful? The short and the long of it is: we wouldn't. To determine is something is waste, we would need to observe it, its interactions with its environment, and the world in which it operates (in order to determine its usefulness and actual uses). Our ability to identify waste is, therefore, the result of accumulated knowledge. The concept of waste is so anthropocentric and dependent on human prejudices that it is very likely spurious, a mere construct, devoid of any objective, ontological content.

This view is further enhanced by the fact that the words "waste" and "wasteful" carry negative moral and social connotations. It is wrong and "bad" to waste money, or time, or food. Waste is, thus, rendered a mere value judgment, specific to its time, placeScience Articles, and purveyors.

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