Thursday, January 2, 2014

Waste is Normal?? Lessons from a Bird Feeder

My husband has become a birder. He hung up a bird feeder on our back porch and every few minutes or so I catch him looking outside to see who is munching away on his treats. He checked out a bird field guide from the library and keeps telling me the names of the various finches, sparrows, and our beloved cardinals that pay us a visit. His love for the birds is a treat for me to see because as a lifelong asthmatic with allergies to "everything alive", he doesn't get many opportunities to interact closely with nature. But his bird friends are perfect - he can enjoy them, learn about them, and they don't stay in his house and make him sneeze!

I can't remember the names of the bird species that pay us a visit (my memory is notoriously terrible), but remembering the names of the species isn't as appealing to me as trying to figure out how they work and what lessons we can learn from them. So what is my main takeaway from observing our bird friends so far? 

Waste is normal. 

This observation is a bit shocking to me. It flies in the face of all sustainability theory I've read and practiced for the last fifteen years, so so how can I observe that waste is normal? Because it is, when you look at component parts in isolation without seeing the larger system. Not every species can consume the entirety of the resources that are offered. Sometimes, there is waste, but this waste is readily taken up by another component, resulting in a zero-waste system.

Take for instance, the tiny little finches that perch on the feeder for extended periods of time. These slovenly fellows pick though the opening, pulling out any seeds that are too big and dropping them on the ground in order to find the Goldilocks seeds that are just right for them. But this is only a part of the story. The larger seeds that are discarded by the smaller birds are consumed readily on the floor by the squirrels that wait patiently for the seeds to drop like manna from heaven. They break open the larger shells, usually the sunflower seeds, and eat the yummy treat inside. And they leave the shell. The shell is wasted by the squirrel. But, the shells that remain drop to the soil below and, when it's warmer, the soil microbes will begin to break down these shells to make food for the plants and structure for the soil. 

The waste of one is truly food for another. 

This basic principle of ecology is something we have trouble emulating in our human systems. We are one component of a system - the finches, for example. We are sloppy and inefficient and we make waste, which is normal and expected, if not ideal. Our bodies and systems are not sophisticated and efficient enough to process every component of a resource. And we wouldn't need to be, if there were squirrels or microbes around to take that waste and use it as energy to fuel its own processes. In nature, there is no waste, because one organism will always find a way to adapt and capitalize on excess energy in a system. 

So the way I see it, our options are: 
  1. become more efficient in processing resources,
  2. find partners and collaborate to use waste energy as fuel, or 
  3. BOTH! 
We start by making our processes more efficient - this saves resources, energy, and money. But when it is not possible to use every bit of a resource, we then look for partners and collaborators who can use our waste as fuel for their own processes. Take the concepts of industrial ecology and apply it to a variety of human applications! We can support services that pick up our food scraps and compost them into fertilizer (as Chicago's Collective Resource does), companies that use take-back protocols to recycle our used goods into new products (such as Interface's ReEntry Reclamation program), and services that recycle usable building materials into new projects (such as Chicago's Rebuilding Exchange). And these are just the services that exist! Innovators around the world are developing products and services to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, mine landfills for useful materials discarded long ago, and capture "waste" heat and particulates from buildings and smoke stacks. 

You can do this too! 

Start by viewing your waste as a resource and then try to think of partners and collaborators that could use these resources as fuel for their business - eliminating waste to the landfills and lessening energy requirements at the same time - a win-win! Let's harness our human cleverness so that we no longer compartmentalize our resources and processes but integrate them into a larger, complex system, benefiting not only ourselves but the rest of the creatures with which we share this planet. 

1 comment:

  1. One waste issue I'm facing after the holidays is an excess of cardboard boxes because of all the internet shopping I did this year. Cardboard is recycled, sure, but a box should be reused as a box for as long as possible before shredding. A question for municipal recyclers - is anything currently done with boxes put on the curb besides shredding? This seems like a good opportunity for the sharing economy or a take-back program.