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Waste Not
Making Something Out of Nothing:
Time for a Rethink About Waste

Excess is inevitable; and we should re-evaluate our understanding of what businesses do with it accordingly. Instead of thinking of excesses as the end of a story, recognize the potential of wastes as the start of something new.

Waste management is a big challenge. From recycling to upcycling, circular economies to LCAs, figuring out what to do with excess material is a familiar problem for any sustainability practitioner. Many of our most pressing environmental challenges, from climate change to plastic pollution, stem from difficulties managing the extra, unproductive stuff — from CO2 to particulate pollution — our economy generates.

Waste is everywhere — particularly, in the food business. Livestock operations are infamous for theirs, which has been known to spectacularly erupt on occasion. Food operations of all stripes have waste-generating inputs, produce yet more waste during production, then ship outputs in plastic and cardboard — creating yet more waste.

Some products generate waste systemically. Coffee is a particularly egregious example: After processing, it is estimated that only 6 percent of the coffee cherry makes it to the cup. The rest, including an edible and nutritious fruit called cascara, is often left to rot — producing the potent greenhouse gas methane, and polluting local water supplies. Sale of cascara for consumption was even illegal in the EU from 1997-2022, further complicating efforts to use it in more productive ways.

From a cradle-to-grave perspective, what many companies — in many industries, not just food — accomplish is the filling of landfills, with a brief period of use somewhere between manufacture and permanent disposal. Suffice to say, this carelessness about waste creation will not do. We’re exhausting Earth’s resources; and the real costs of producing so much waste are increasingly disastrous.

Designing for Circularity-Friendly Behaviors

Join us as leaders from BBMG and REI examine how leading brands are innovating and scaling circular models to attract new fans and earn customer loyalty, all while eliminating waste — Thurs, May 9, at Brand-Led Culture Change.

There are plenty of new ideas about reuse and recycling, but the philosophy of waste is worth a look. French writer Georges Bataille understood excess to be an integral part of all systems. In his controversial, often radical writing, all things produce excesses: Human societies produce excess energy, which gets accounted for productively in the arts or destructively in wars. The Earth produces excess energy, which gets released explosively in earthquakes and volcanoes. Even life itself, for Bataille, is a kind of excess — a manifestation of surplus energy from the sun. In the first volume of The Accursed Share, he summarizes:

“The living organism … ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life … If the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.”

In other words, every system will produce an excess; but what happens to that extra stuff has consequences. A look at our current environmental crises, brought on by unaccounted-for material, demonstrates the need for a paradigm shift. Ignoring it, or sending it out of sight, is not a solution — it’s only the delay of an inevitable reckoning.

So, how to change the paradigm? First, recognize that excesses are an integral part of daily operations that need to be accounted for. Businesses must abandon two-dimensional, linear thinking — where there’s only a straight line between upstream and downstream, with neat endpoints on either side. Instead, realize that production occurs in three dimensions — so the inevitable excess can be productively folded back into the supply chain instead of senselessly jettisoned. Waste never simply disappears; however, good we get at hiding it. Instead, it is a part of production that can and should be utilized, like any other input or output. That shift in thinking is the difference between burying our problems and opening new spaces for creativity — or, in Bataille’s terms, the difference between glory and catastrophe.

For us at Yogi, we’re forever finding ways to recontextualize the excesses in our supply chain. In Sri Lanka, farmers were struggling with a governmental ban on imported fertilizer. The solution was in the garbage: Aided by our funding, one of our cinnamon suppliers began using processed cinnamon bark — previously discarded during the production of cinnamon oil — as a source of organic fertilizer. On September 7, the first dispersal of this renewable, restorative fertilizer went out to farmers; and the program is set to create 15 tons every month — all from what used to be trash.

In our facilities, rather than turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of recycling programs, we partnered with another local firm to compile our plastic waste and sell it to a company that uses it to produce resilient outdoor flooring.

Novel approaches to excess materials have even found their way into our products. Cacao shells, delicious and overlooked byproducts of chocolate production, add richness and depth to our Choice Organics Cocoa Mint Puerh tea.

The bottom line, following Bataille, is that excess is inevitable — and we should re-evaluate our understanding of what businesses do with it accordingly. Instead of thinking of excesses as the end of a story, recognize the potential of wastes as the start of something new. As I’ve argued, the words we use and the stories we tell matter. Thinking of excesses as trash, something only to be discarded, precludes the idea that they could be useful. What waste offers is opportunity — from helping farmers to building patios, flavoring teas to making new beverages, distilling spirits to even getting value from surplus atmospheric carbon. Trash is always treasure — the difference is only in how we look at it.

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