What can nature teach us about our waste?

If you have ever taken a walk in a forest, wood or fully natural ecosystem, then you may have noticed a significant difference between humans and the rest of the natural world.

We are the only ones who create waste.

No other animal or plant on the entire planet creates unusable, non-recyclable waste except for us. Take that forest you may have strolled through for example. Researchers have shown* that a healthy forest ecosystem recycles around 98% of all of its nutrients with only 2% leaving the forest each year through animals and water run off. 98% is an unbelievable level of self sufficiency. Especially when, if you look at the bigger picture, that 2% that escapes will only be used up by another ecosystem outside of the forest. So on a larger scale the natural world is in fact 100% sustainable. Well, that is until we arrived…

The average person in North America creates the following amounts of waste:

A day = 2kg (4.3lbs)

A week = 14kg (30lbs)

A year = 730kg (1,569lbs)

It’s safe to say that we are a long way off the rest of the natural world. Even the most sustainable and environmentally conscious cities at present are only aiming to achieve about a third of what nature can.

Where nature recycles and reuses materials and nutrients again and again. We create waste that is on the most part unusable.  At its worst it is landfilled and takes hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to break down. At best it is recycled, requiring fossil fuels to transport and process, loses its quality and ultimately ends up on the landfill after a few uses. We are the odd ones out. It’s a secret gang that us humans left a while back. While nature adopted a closed loop system we adopted a one way system.

Two examples of closed loop systems in nature. Copyright https://astont.wordpress.com
Two very basic examples of closed loop systems in nature. Copyright https://astont.wordpress.com

The sad thing in all this is that we actually haven’t been fully kicked out of this nature gang. Good old Mother Nature is a forgiving soul and is still trying to accommodate us despite our repeated abuse of her home. She is also secretly a bit OCD and likes to keep a clean place. So while we are operating on our one way system she repeatedly tries to tidy up after us and create a closed loop system. She still tries to process our waste in the same way she would with a leaf, or decomposing animal because that’s what she does best. The only problem is she hasn’t realised the nutrients we are adding aren’t beneficial to any of us. That’s why our plastic waste is now being discovered in our food chain and the chemicals we spray on our crops are starting to affect our health. Nature is simply breaking it all down and adding it back into the system. We’re like the crappy guests at a diner party, when everyone else spends ages cooking organic, healthy food, turn up with a McDonalds.

So what does all this teach us? It teaches us that simply because we can’t see the immediate result of our actions it doesn’t mean they don’t have consequences. It also teaches us that the solutions are really quite simple. All we need to do is stop adding toxic, unnatural items to the loop, and start using organic items that nature can process and use again and again without it damaging the larger ecosystem.

How can we achieve this? With each action you take simply ask yourself, “Will this benefit or damage our closed loop system?” If everyone starts to play their part and contribute to the system with healthy and beneficial actions we can start to create a much more vibrant system for all of us.

Josh

*Gaia’s Garden – Toby Hemenway

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