Re-Imagining Waste

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), more than one billion out of 6.5 billion people are affected by hunger globally. In fact, it is estimated that 690 million people sleep hungry every night! On the other hand, it is estimated that we 6.5 billion people generate at least 2.01 billion tonnes of biodegradable waste every year.

Waste isn’t waste, until we waste it — Will.I.Am

I, as a microbiologist do not see this as waste but as a tool to combat global food scarcity. I believe there are various ways of harnessing the nutrition hidden in this so-called waste. Can you imagine being able to convert your household waste into protein-rich mushrooms through simple process that most anyone can learn? Through these workshops not only would you end up with delicious mushrooms, you would also more effectively utilize at least 4 forms of wastes (namely kitchen, gardening, stationary and agricultural waste).

In my personal journey, I am continuing to explore & experiment with other forms of biodegradable wastes that could be harnessed to grow mushrooms. I recently had a fracture in one of my hands. During my course of recovery, I realised that the orthopedic waste (plaster of paris, cotton & gauge) could be effectively utilized as yet another mushroom growing medium. Therefore, right after my recovery, instead of dumping these precious resources, I attempted to convert them into mushrooms, & the picture of below shows the result of this experiment!

Mushrooms from waste — photo by Shrey Gupta

Waste is a necessary part of all living systems. I always have loved the proverb, ‘One wo/man’s trash, is another wo/man’s treasure’. In natural ecosystems, animals and plants naturally embody this principle. Charles Eisenstein talks about the trophic cascade where bears go into the water and eat salmon, then they travel deep in the forest, and in the process defecate throughout the forest. The nutrients, from eating the salmon, are present in their ‘waste’ and serve as a vital source of nutrients for the wider ecosystem. These cycles of waste recycling are found throughout most all living systems.

It was interesting to see that littering was such a big problem in most of the Indian villages that I spent time in. One of the reasons that were given to me explaining this reality deeply fascinated me. With urbanization, plastics and other non-biodegradable waste came into the villages. Before that, all of the waste was biodegradable, so littering was actually beneficial, it was literally returning the nutrients to the land.

Tea cups are an interesting example of this. It used to be common for tea stands to use handmade clay tea cups. Now they commonly use mini plastic cups, or plastically lined cups . Walking through the villages you see these non-biodegradable cups scattered all over the place. In the village I was in, these would often be eaten by the pigs, goats, cows and buffalos that roam around the village, which has led to another range of negative impacts.

The response most people give to why the clay tea cups are no longer used is that: they take too much time to make, they are more expensive than the plastic cups. David Fleming reminds us of the importance of intentional waste, and how common it was in traditional cultures. In his life’s work, Lean Logic, he also emphasises the importance of using locally sourced, biodegradable materials, when building things, EVEN IF IT COSTS A LITTLE BIT MORE MONEY AND TAKES A LITTLE BIT MORE TIME! Waste is one of the many core elements of David Fleming’s blueprint for Surviving the Future.

Ironically, as Shrey pointed out in the opening paragraph, waste has the potential to save us!

I imagine a world where Compost Toilets are the norm. The majority of products that most people use on a daily basis are locally sourced, and biodegradable. Individual families would have their individual compost bins, and produce such a low amount of non-biodegradable waste that municipal support for managing waste would be minimized. I imagine that more people, like Shrey, will use waste to make mushrooms.

And, as Nate Hagens points out, I imagine that, as a human species, we start to understand that Renewable Energy sources (solar panels, wind turbines etc.) also create waste, and that the technologies themselves are not inherently renewable, but rather re-buildable!

Here are some prompts for you to reflect on Waste in your context: How can you more effectively use the waste in your life? What are some ways that you can minimize the non-biodegradable waste that you use? Would that mean changing some habits or working with some addictions? Change is not easy, but soon, if we do not change our ways, it will be forced instead of managed. So, we might as well try to manage it while we still can?

Photo of a poster at Shikshantar taken by Daniel Rudolph

Lead Author: Shrey Gupta (first 3 paragraphs)

Shrey is a microbiologist by profession with 9+ years of academic and self taught experience in the field. He is helping people build harmony between self and nature while collectively exploring the hidden world of microbes. To be a part of such an exploration, join one of his upcoming workshops.

With relation to workshops and waste, Shrey helps people convert their household waste into protein-rich mushrooms! Over the past few rounds of these workshops, he has noticed that categorically at least 4 forms of wastes (namely kitchen, gardening, stationary and agricultural waste) can be efficiently converted into mushrooms.

For example, in the last session, Shrey had 16 participants from 11 states of India. A total of 15 Kg of biodegradable matter which included vegetable peels, used tea leaves, cardboard, used paper napkins, corn cobs etc. which would have gone as waste to landfills. More than 90% participants from this session have been able to harvest their first mushroom crop until now! You can read more about this workshop here.

Anchor Author: Daniel Rudolph

Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about forming community, and building public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. Currently he is spending a lot of his time learning juggling and facilitating gatherings. He also enjoys writing and sharing poetry. Daniel is a very curious and playful person and is always open for creative collaborations.

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