Date: 24 August 2018

We do not have a trash problem in the world, we have a poor design problem. If we would design our products better, there would be no trash because anything that is not of use to us anymore, could be used as input for another process. To illustrate, think of the paper coffee cup that has seeds embedded into the interior. This used cup might not be useful to the person who originally acquired it, but it can be thrown away with no harm, it even has a positive effect when thrown on fertile soil, growing trees and plants while being digested by nature. This design solution is the main thought behind the cradle-to-cradle approach.
Waste=food was first coined by chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough, it is the term used to describe the effect mentioned above. The documentary waste=food is a critically acclaimed show about the many faces of the cradle-to-cradle approach.
Currently, a lot of processes and products are not doing well to the environment and people around us. They often create waste, toxins, pollution and negative health effects to nature and humans. Think of one-time use straws that are discarded after their use and result in the pollution of our soils and not less dangerous; polluting our seas, fish and ultimately pollute our food again creating health hazards to our body.
Both government and enterprises alike have suggested that we should stop this horrible pollution to nature by introducing emission standards and pollution limits for toxic or hazardous substances. For example, the Kenyan government has said to reduce their emissions by 30% compared to business-as-usual levels. The government will try to achieve this by increasing forest levels and installing more wind and solar capacity for sustainable electricity generation. In this way, we will reduce our impact on the earth, Braungart and McDonough argue however that this only limits the impact, but will never be of any positive good to the earth. Therefore, we should move away from eco-efficiency and towards ‘eco-effectiveness’.
The term eco-effectiveness is essentially moving away from being less bad to being more good. This can be applied to any process or product. Think of plastic bottles that are normally harmful to the environment when disposed of. Instead, when designing we should not only think of the requirements during use, such as being leak free, preserving the liquid and cheap to produce, we should think of the phase after the initial consumption. What will happen to the bottle when it is disposed of? What will happen if it gets into our ocean? By designing products that are for example bio-compostable bottles, or easy to collect metal bottles and finally re-using them again giving no harm to the surroundings and then the bottle becomes a nutrient for new processes or products; biomass briquettes, metal sheets or new bottles.
This concept is just not an ideal to live by, but also can be applied in real cases. Take for example the problem I encountered in the slums of Kibera, Nairobi. Kibera is the second-largest slum of Africa and inhibits at least a million people in a few square kilometres and it suffers from not achieving basic needs for its population. Pollution is creating a large problem, there is plastic waste and rotting food present on the streets and people are burning trash, creating harmful smoke, diseases and a bad smell. By the inhabitants of that specific neighbourhood, I was asked to do something about this problem. People were not able to afford to dispose of their waste in a responsible way and therefore try to burn it, seeing their used products as a cost to them.
When applying the waste=food concept though, we can view the problem as a solution. What if we used the rotting food as input for a biodigester? Thus creating clean fuel as opposed to the used charcoal. Both used for cooking. There was also ample discarded parts of clothes, and this textile can be used as a resource for new clothes, towels or even be cleaned and re-used, instead of preventing new virgin material to be used. Plastic has, unfortunately, a negative effect on the environment, but it could be repurposed to make it more sustainable. For example, filling bottles with sand, used as new building material, or crush them to bits for new shapes or uses with plastic. Seeing waste as a valuable resource can create new opportunities for the smart entrepreneurs, for example using textile to fabricate new bags out of recycled material, creating value for the customer, but also the environment.
If everyone, from designer to citizen used the waste=food principle in their daily lives, designing and consuming products, there would not be such a large pollution problem. However, that is where we, unfortunately, stand right now. But, by applying the principles shown above, we can move again to a world where we can live in harmony with nature, animals and the people around us without destroying the ability for future generations to celebrate life.