Permaculture Principle 6: Produce No Waste
[This is the sixth installment in a 12-week series exploring Business Through the Lens of Permaculture. Using the principles of permaculture, a design framework that brings greater connection and understanding of the way elements within a system work together, we will undergo a study about how each of these principles can be applied to the systems of business. This series will focus specifically on small business, where an owner’s way of working impacts every facet of the business.]
We live in a throwaway culture. Disposable everything. Technology that goes obsolete within a few years (or less!). Ghosting (disposable relationships, imagine that). Huge landfills.
Yet, there is no “away.” Everything that we throw out is still on this planet, even if you cannot see it with your own eyes.
Somehow, I always knew this. Even when I was my early elementary school years. One time, my Mom came into my room and in my closet were all my old school papers stacked up 3 feet high. My Mom asked why on Earth I had them all. I told her there was no away, so I figured having them sit in my closet was as good as having them sit anywhere else.
What if we actually grokked the concept that there is no away? How would that change the way we live? Not throwing anything away. Anything that could be considered waste is useful for something else.
The sixth permaculture principle is: produce no waste.
I believe that along with this principle is an invitation to look at waste as if it is not waste. Waste is just a mental concept. It’s just a reflection of the way we look at the world.
For a moment, let’s suspend our usual way of thinking about waste. Don’t think about waste like waste. Let’s simply go with the assumption that any material that exists – raw, created, by-products are all things that can be used in a useful way.
The questions then become:
- How can this be used?
- Who needs it?
- How can I get it to them?
- Can it stay exactly where it was created?
- How can I use it now?
- What will I create from it?
- What does it look like to productively put to use all materials that are available?
I know a husband and wife, both master craftspeople in their own right. They take items that may be thought of as “discarded” and use them to create incredible art pieces that engage delight and creativity. Witnessing their work inspires a new way of seeing the world – not as things are, but how they could be.
Through this lens of no waste, what in a business generally gets wasted? Time, energy, effort, money, materials. What else might you add to this list? How about your own capacity within the business if you’re not thinking about this well or leveraging your strengths effectively? Maybe the processes in your business create a lot of downtime. Is that waste? Not necessarily. Especially if you think about using that time in other productive ways that allow other processes to run in your business in parallel. Maybe the business produces output that isn’t being used or shared effectively.
If we think about any ecosystem, anything that might be considered waste is used by other species within the ecosystem. Say a crab dies and a seagull eats the meat inside, but not all of it. Smaller species come and clean out the shell. The exoskeleton breaks down naturally and becomes part of the sand environment. Nothing is wasted.
Think about your own business. What feels like waste? What is being wasted currently? How can you think about this differently?
At the core of “produce no waste” is the value of being intentional with the resources you have. To look at everything that your business creates as a resource that can be used in some way that has value.
Think about what it looks like when you get a box from Amazon and it is a small box in a big box. You probably wonder why the heck they even did that? You can see the waste.
In the same way, if you work with physical goods in a business think about the lifecycle of your products. How do you package your goods? What is going to get thrown out? At the end of the useful life of your product, what is left over? How will it get disposed of?
One thing that personally drives me crazy is socks. They usually wear out in the same ways and then when you pitch them, most of the sock is still good. The fibers are intact. At the core, there is useful material. Imagine how many millions of socks are thrown out every year. They were all created from raw materials and labor of people around the world. When you throw socks out, that labor and material get discarded. How can the life of it be extended? How could those socks be brought back to life a second time so the labor, sun, material, and soil inputs can be used again? If there was a company that made socks from recycled socks, I would buy ALL my socks from them.
Are you someone who gives gifts in your business or runs events? What materials are given to attendees? Do you recollect them at the end of the event to be recycled? When you give gifts, do you think about how they are packaged or how they might be used or disposed of? These are all things to be aware of as a business owner. If you give gifts and you know much of the gift is recyclable after the fact, say this. Ask people to recycle or responsibly dispose of the product when finished. If you have a retail store, make it easy for people to take the action that produces no waste.
Each one of us has a part to play in the greater environment and the small actions that we take have far-reaching implications when we think about the impact of our collective actions. Bringing greater awareness to the way we work, how our products or services are delivered and how we interact with our greater environment allows us to set a good example and create habits that honor the materials and energy we use within the business environment.
Next week, we’ll dive into observing the natural patterns that occur in your business to support the design of how your business flows.
I hope you’ll think about the connections between these principles and the way businesses operate, so you can draw new parallels and your own connections to the framework.