Permaculture Principles and Exo: #6 "Produce No Waste"

This is the sixth in a series of commentaries on possible cross-fertilization between exo points of view and those embedded in co-founder David Homgren’s fifteen permaculture principles.

“The icon of the worm represents one of the most effective recyclers of organic materials, consuming plant and animal ‘waste’ into valuable plant food. The proverb ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ reminds us that timely maintenance prevents waste, while ‘waste not, want not’ reminds us that it’s easy to be wasteful in times of abundance, but this waste can be a source of hardship later.”


I still haul out one garbage can to the curb every two months. Not because anything in that can is “waste,” but because I haven’t yet figured out what will eat the various items in it. Plastic packaging especially. Why are little metal and electronic doo-hickies encased in hard plastic cocoons that are almost impossible to tear apart without cutting deeply into equanimity?

I really like architect William McDonough’s version of this principle: There is no such thing as ‘waste.’ I first heard this phrase at the showing of a movie about him, and just hearing those seven words in that particular sequence sent a shock wave through my system. Suddenly, everything changed. I saw the world in a new way.

His matter-of-fact statement, “there is no such thing as waste,” transformed my perception of the world from many to one, from a collection of objects in space, each one distinct and separate from others and with its own set of inputs and outputs, into a world of relationships between frequency clusters in an ever-vibrating energy web.

The dynamics of the universe also changed: rather than objects of various sizes swallowing and excreting one another and knocking each other about, I was attuning to a multi-hued symphony of waves through rippling fields of light.

If what I got out of McDonough’s version of the 6th permaculture principle seems like a stretch from what he actually said, I’m not surprised. I imagine there are a few “logical steps” from premise to conclusion that my mind either skipped over, or snapped up unconsciously in order to center me in the mysticism of oceanic oneness.

And maybe I was just so relieved — to think that there isn’t any waste — nothing really rotten, stinking, absurd, unusable, abandoned, rejected, unneeded . . . Maybe that remark just sank into my soul, at the time caught up with old emotional abandonment issues. Geez! To think that not only was I not waste, or “wasted,” but that I was actually of value in a universe where everything related to everything else.

Certainly, hearing that statement, “there is no such thing as waste,” wasn’t completely responsible for my shift into unity consciousness. I had been flirting with it metaphysically for years, decades even, starting with running my horse bareback into the dawn as a child, and then in my 20s, experimenting with psychoactive plants. But McDonough talked about this principle in terms of a concrete architectural project that he had designed, the details of which I no longer remember, but which placed this principle squarely within the physical, pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts world.

This is the world that permaculture inhabits as well. If there is no such thing as “waste,” then every output from one process can input into another process. Newspaper, magazines, office pack, fallen sticks and leaves can all help build lasagna beds in the garden; greywater can be directed into the garden to hydrate plants. Urine and human or rabbit or chicken or horse manure, as well as vegetable matter can all be composed for the soil to fertilize plants. We don’t have to flush our “waste” down the toilet or pay to have waste “taken away.” As the saying goes, in a finite world with a growing population, eventually, “there is no ‘away.'”

In McDonough’s creative process, he was seeking to arrange various spaces, functions, and processes of that building so that they formed, as fully as possible, a living whole, a nearly closed system with no energy leakage (no outputs seen as “waste”), and no doubt (though I don’t remember) powered by the limitless sun.

In any case, the shock of hearing him speak, and watching him regard everything in the world as of intrinsic value when in relationship, was, for me, a revelation.

Now I look at my hard plastic packaging and think, what will eat this?

Of course, I could take a hard look at my own process, and ask why buy stuff that comes in hard packaging? But that is to ask, why am I not a Luddite? If I want to be interconnected in this internet world we have created, I’m inevitably going to be buying some stuff new, and it will most likely come in hard plastic packaging. Why?

Well, we could say it’s because people steal little stuff, unless it comes in an easily detectable, awkwardly big cocoon. Or, we could wax even more cynical, and say that it’s because packaging manufacturers have marketing departments that continuously invent new reasons for new packaging.

Or maybe the rise of marketing and advertising is connected to the fear that someone will steal our stuff. Advertising has cheapened our use of language to the point where we no longer mean what we say. In a social world where meaningful communication is rare, we feel scared and lonely. We clutch at what is left, hold on lest someone snatch it away.

We ignore the constantly replenishing store of abundance that Nature, even when under extreme duress from centuries of human disregard, continues to provide.

We feel separate from Her and from each other.

We look upon each other with distrust, and feel isolated, alone.

The universal web of relationship has been unraveling for over 300 years (or is it 2000 years? Since Descartes? or since the Greeks?). Industrialization cathected Newtonian science and its billiard ball universe from theory to hard, cold, fact. We are reaping the rewards of what we created with our scientific and technological ingenuity in mountains of old, abandoned stuff. Then there’s the booty of endless war played remotely like a video game: leaving destroyed villages, towns and cities; charred vehicles; radioactive and land-mined earth; piles and piles of human, animal, and plant carrion.

If objects (and people) are separate from one another in space, and if we value some over others, then “waste” enters the picture.

But it doesn’t. (And we aren’t.)

There’s no such thing as waste. We exist as unique, irreplaceable, interdependent nodes in a unified field. We all live and breathe within the limitless plenum of zone zero zero, each of us a tiny extrusion of consciousness within the ever re-plenishing flux, rising and falling like waves upon the mysterious depths of a luminous sea.



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