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Vicious or useless?

We're all complicit. Who among us hasn't put in an Amazon order for a tin of Altoids only to be horrified when a box capable of housing a small couch materializes at the front door? In 2015, more than 35 million tons of containerboard was produced in the US alone. To put this in perspective, that's enough to fully blanket a two-lane highway from LA to NY (or NY to LA, depending on your perspective).

Even recycled cardboard consumes 75% of the energy of the first run. On top of that, it can only be recycled about eight times before the material is too far degraded. So in terms of creating waste, throwing that Amazon box into the recycling bin is the equivalent of throwing one-eighth of the same box directly into the trash.

This is true at least partly because the accounting systems that dominate capitalist economies completely ignore externalities like environmental impact. Capitalism, so proficient at creating abundance, does not disappoint in the area of waste.
"As early as the 1920s Stuart Chase identified four systematic sources of waste under capitalism: (1) the labor power used to produce "vicious or useless goods and services"; (2) labor power wasted due to unemployment; (3) the unplanned nature of production and distribution of goods leading to inefficiencies and overproduction; and (4) the senseless waste and overuse of natural resources."
I don't think this topic requires much persuasion among the tens of readers of this newsletter. But taking a closer look at the scope of the problem and ways in which emerging technologies can help abate the problem should serve up just the right combination of infuriation and hope needed to imagine a different future.

More like trashed fashion

The scope of The True Cost—a must-watch documentary exploring the far-reaching externalities of the fast fashion industry—extends beyond the mere physical waste that results from the industry's explosive growth in the last two decades. It can be argued, though, that the other byproducts—exploitative working conditions, disease, death—are a kind of waste in and of themselves: one of human potential.

In terms of the purely physical, EPA estimates that Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually. This represents 80 pounds per person. And if you pile on top of that the nearly 700 gallons of water used to produce a single t-shirt, it becomes quite a bit easier to resist the temptation of that $9.99 H&M tee emblazoned with the Nirvana logo for some reason.
"H&M won’t say how many tons of clothes it sells, but the 12,000 tons it took back in 2015 is clearly a fraction of what the chain sold."
Ultimately, despite the fast fashion chains' expressed desire—genuine or not—to shift their models from linear to circular (i.e., waste-generating vs. sustainable), if consumers (quick refresher: "consumers" are mythological creatures) continue to value weekly trends and disposable-level pricing, it's hard to see them making much progress on that front.

The doc highlights some brands that have built more humanist, responsible models, demonstrating a clear demand for better practices and reminding us that, as usual, we have to shift our behavior and be the change we wish to see.
 

Garbage patch kid

Speaking of useless, how about those half a billion (not a typo) straws that are used and discarded every day in the US? This astronomical volume of waste recently inspired a movement (#StopSucking) to change our habits and rid the oceans of straws.

The gyre of trash in the Pacific Ocean (reverently dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and partially composed of said billions of straws) attracted the attention of Boyan Slat, a Dutch aerospace engineering student. He proposed a solution that would capitalize on natural currents to collect waste into massive, floating arms, and then recycle the bounty into raw materials for manufacturing.

It's an ambitious experiment, and doesn't go without its detractors. Some claim the system will have adverse affects on existing marine ecosystems and potentially catch marine life along with the garbage. Others argue that solving the problem upstream would eventually lead to a disappearance of the problem downstream.
“Focusing clean-up at those gyres, in the opinion of most of the scientific community, is a waste of effort,” says marine biologist Jan van Franeker of Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands. “It’s a lot of money to reduce something that disappears in 10 to 20 years, if you stop the input.”
Whether or not an upstream solution is imminent is yet to be seen, and it's still early in the prototype phase (they recently ran into some "unexpected learnings"), but these big ideas may be exactly what we need in face of the myriad industrial and post-industrial crises that have been unleashed on our planet.

Printing the future

Globally, more than 15 million people earn a living picking trash from landfills. In India, one social entrepreneur has teamed up with a local collective of waste pickers to set up an on-site facility that produces filament—the raw material used by modern 3D printers. This allows them to compensate the pickers up to 15x what they would normally receive for their collection.

In addition to repurposing the contents of landfills and raising wages for those in the lowest socioeconomic strata, 3D printing promises to address some of the most detrimental effects of our economy. As its capabilities expand beyond plastics to include organic materials, 3D printing contains the promise of a future where goods are not centrally manufactured, but rather the raw materials are harvested or grown locally and a distributed network of printers creates things on-demand, only as needed.

In one technological swoop, both the packaging waste and the carbon footprint of the shipping industry could become a thing of the past.

Deep thoughts

Waste not want not. In other words, if you don’t waste resources in your present moment, you will never fall short in the future. This idiom applies not just to money, but to other scarce resources, including time and energy.

There must be a strong correlation between wasteful behavior and spiritual want. Capitalism pushes us toward conspicuous consumption and promises love and understanding in return. But an economic machine that needs to grow to survive will, by nature, leave immense amount of waste in its wake. The reality is that the more attentive we are to these "vicious" and "useless" things, the less attention is left for others, and ourselves.

This includes the flood of information that engulfs us every day through media (social and otherwise). We don't choose where to focus our attention as much as it's chosen for us, based on capitalist imperatives, and as a result we are sad, anxious and underslept.

"In 2014, researchers in Austria found that participants reported lower moods after using Facebook for 20 minutes compared to those who just browsed the internet. The study suggested that people felt that way because they saw it as a waste of time."

The thing is, the internet and social media are incredible tools for building bridges of empathy and connecting the world in a completely unprecedented way. The technology itself is not to blame, but rather the capitalist attention economy that must capture increasing amounts of our most scarce resource—our time—to survive. Our wasted time is not of concern to a system that sells ads based on impressions and time spent.

Thankfully, there's a rising awareness of this problem and reformed tech bros like Tristan Harris are working to reorient the tech industry toward reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity's best interest. Deconstructing this particular capitalist myth may be the most important cause of our time. Go tell your friends.

Fin.

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