Sustainability is a Minimum

“Sustainability is a minimum: doing less harm is not the same as doing good.” Michael Braungart said this in the film Waste = Food and I think the phrase is one that every person needs to hear and take to heart. The phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle” is we have heard over and over probably since we were very young. The “Three Rs” as they are sometimes called have become a tired mantra repeated over and over, excusing society for the havoc we wreak on the natural environment because we threw a plastic water bottle in a different trash can than a banana peel.

In a co-authored article titled “The NEXT Industrial Revolution” Michael Braungart and William McDonough observe, “Reduction, reuse, and recycling slow down the rates of contamination and depletion but do not stop these processes.” The article goes on to advocate for entire systems redesign so that at the time a material is produced, the second life of that material is designed into the original. This will transform the poor efficiency and waste of down-cycling into healthy re-cycling and even up-cycling with the goal of achieving a zero-waste cycle.

According to an article published in People magazine earlier this year, the Johnson family in California has caught on to this idea and has worked hard to reduce their overall trash production. This involves a number of steps including (but not limited to) bringing glass jars to fresh food markets and bakeries (reducing packaging waste), moving into a smaller home within walking and biking distance from work and grocery vendors, and reducing overall consumption. According to the Environmental Protection Agency the average American throws away about 1,000 pounds of trash per year! The Johnson family of four collectively fills only one liter Mason jar with waste per year! For each of these items they cannot avoid making waste of, Mrs. Johnson writes the company to request greener manufacturing. I think if everyone got back to living within their means as the Johnson’s have AND manufacturing becomes a more well-designed system of up-cycling and zero-waste, top-down, bottom-up approaches will meet in the middle at a happy, healthy planet.


As McDonough discusses in the film Waste = Food, this goal of zero waste is not Utopian, it is smart. 

Johnson purchases dry goods like grains and flour in bulk in reusable cloth bags and stores them in glass jars in the cupboard. Photo: Alexis Petru, Earth911


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