Waste – what is it? It may be a truism to say that waste is simply what gets thrown away, but the make-up of what gets thrown away is often quite revealing. What makes something waste is not necessarily what it is made of, or what it started out as, but how it is treated; it is people’s perception of stuff, in its simplest form, that determines whether it is waste or not. If an item is put to good use, it is not wasted; whether or not it was originally intended for this purpose. Once an item has been deemed useless by its owner, and it is consigned to the rubbish bin, it becomes waste, obsolete, regardless of how it started out.

The production and deployment of more stuff – as opposed to reusing what already exists – is surely the cause of most waste in the world today. There are many complex reasons behind the unnecessary manufacturing of stuff and these do not have easy answers. They are embedded in the capitalist society we live in, with notions of fashion and novelty reoccurring on a daily basis.

What do we need to do to have zero waste? Is zero waste really a possibility? The ultimate and rather daunting answer is that the idea of zero waste will remain totally unfeasible until we see major changes in attitudes and the entire structure of society. Mountains of unnecessary goods with built-in obsolescence will continue to be produced until it stops being profitable to do so. Recycling all your packaging is all well and good but by that stage an enormous amount of energy and resources has already gone into its production. It is, however, one possible route into a more responsible approach to all the excess stuff that is currently clogging up the planet. At least being aware that most things shouldn’t end up in the rubbish bin is one small step on the way to sustainability. Involving people with a positive message and making the task seem achievable is vital to keep a wayward public on board.

Perhaps one large reason why we create so much waste is a lack of information about the processes behind it, and about the alternatives. If people were properly educated on these issues it might help empower them to translate thoughts into action. After BFOE were visited by a representative from Birmingham City Council’s waste and recycling team, it became clear how little resources were available for improved investment into research and wider information access. Such things would in all likelihood have little dramatic impact but might at least contribute to a gradual process of behavioural change.

The place to tackle for maximum impact has to be the start of the waste ladder – the production of so much excess stuff. As consumers, in some respect we have ultimate power over this but we are constrained by so many factors and the difficulty of collective action that we often feel completely powerless. I might suggest that this is where strong government has a role to play, by introducing careful legislation addressing the type of materials that are used and putting the onus for disposing of waste onto the manufacturers at the point of origin, thus creating incentives to use less and build things to be longer-lasting.