Rethinking waste: Transforming problems into solutions (video)

Repurposed brick planter
CC BY 2.0 Joe

There's an argument to be made that the only time something is actually waste is if we don't know how to put it to work, and that by making an effort to recognize so-called waste items as really being resources, we can improve our lives, our homes and communities, and perhaps our entire world.

For instance, in many places, our streets and curbs and stormwater systems are designed to remove rainwater from the streets and neighborhoods as quickly as possible, and to shunt it to downstream. But because rainwater (actually all fresh water) is a precious resource, that "free" water that falls from the sky could be used to make landscapes more sustainable, if we would just make allowance for it and slow down its passage through our neighborhoods. By integrating some commonsense adjustments to roads and sidewalks, such as curb cuts and infiltration basins, in order to slow down that runoff so that it can soak deep into the soil and support the growth of trees and other landscape plants, we could generate shade, cooling, biomass, habitat, and even food, using less municipal water and fertilizers as inputs.

A few other common "waste" items from homes are grass cuttings, tree prunings, and fall leaves, all of which often get hauled offsite to be disposed of, yet could be put to work increasing soil fertility, as well as reducing evaporation (which decreases the demand for some water inputs to the property) and mitigating erosion. But if we haul off these renewable, biodegradable, and free materials, we then have to pay to bring in mulch, more water, and more compost or other soil amendments, so keeping them and using them onsite makes so much more sense.

We also tend to send our household water downstream as quickly as possible from our sinks and tubs, where it will need to be cleaned yet again by a water treatment plant, when it could potentially be used to grow trees and shrubs and other plants in the landscape, without any further treatment. This reuse of grey water can be done in a way as simple or complex as you like (depending on the legality where you live), and is another way to turn a "waste" into a resource.

In this fun little educational video, Brad Lancaster, who is one of my personal favorites among home/garden/DIY authors due to his excellent series on rainwater harvesting for drylands, takes us through some of the thinking behind the idea of transforming wastes into resources at home, as well as some of the specific examples of how to do so. He's in Tucson, so some of these examples are a bit more specific to his location in the drylands, but the concepts and design thinking behind them can be adapted for any location, with variations for different climates and types of "waste" inputs present.

Lancaster, who has been car-free for years, lives on an eighth of an acre in Tucson, Arizona, and has turned it into a green oasis-like property (with "living air conditioners of food-bearing shade trees, abundant gardens, and a thriving landscape incorporating wildlife habitat, beauty, edible and medicinal plants"), in large part because he harvests over 100,000 gallons of rainwater per year from the meager annual rainfall of 12 inches. I find that to be incredibly inspiring, because I also live in the desert, and if he can do it, I can too. And as all of us continue to try to adapt to a changing climate with hotter and drier weather, putting every drop of rain to work, instead of sending it downstream right away, is something that we're all going to have to get a lot better at.

Rethinking waste: Transforming problems into solutions (video)
Sometimes, even the most diehard enviros among us forget that resources are all around, including those things we consider to be waste.

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