Thrifty, Part 2: Rethink Waste for Sustainable Systems

There’s a direct connection between consumption and waste: the more we consume, the more waste we create—and vice versa.  At Srisa Asoke, the ethic of “consuming little” also means actively reducing waste, specifically through the “3 Rs”: reuse, repair, and recycle. This installment of the Intentional Living Project’s exploration of material wellbeing (a.k.a., “being thrifty”) looks at how and why these Buddhists practiced the 3Rs and how this relates to environmental and financial sustainability.

II. Sustainability

The bulk of  Srisa Asoke’s waste management happened at community recycling center. On mornings when Tangbun, Jantima and I sorted trash together, we would dump the bags we collected from stations scattered around the village, examine every item, pile like objects together, and make decisions about what to do with them.

The majority—dry paper, plastic bottles, glass, and metal scraps—could be sold to the recycling center in town. The rest would be dealt with in other ways. Tangbun complained when students threw out notebooks that still had clean paper in them, and she would set these aside to be used again. Both women picked out clothing that required only washing and minor mending for themselves, their children, or poor neighbors in their old village. Other still-useful items that found their way into the garbage such as electrical parts, twine, containers, pens, and plastic bags were placed in marked boxes at the community recycling center, where residents could easily find things they needed. The little that was left would be taken to the town dump or burned (except batteries, which were stored in a box so as not to pollute the ground).

One morning while Tangbun and I worked in the garden, the conversation returned to the students’ carelessness with waste. Back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had led a few environmental seminars for secondary students, so I shared my observations that waste and recycling were simply not on their radar. On hearing this, Tangbun cajoled me into giving a talk on the “3Rs” to Srisa Asoke’s boarding school students that very morning. Although I am not thrilled about public speaking—especially spur of the moment, in a foreign language, into a microphone, over a loudspeaker—it would be un-Thai, un-Asoke, and ungracious to refuse.

When we arrived at the Common Hall, Peum (a 40ish unmarried former teacher who now serves as community liaison to the District Department of Public Welfare) approached me with a bucket of trash for visual aids and offered to assist. With 200 indigo-clad students watching me expectantly from neat rows on the floor, I was glad for the moral support. So I switched on the hand-held microphone, greeted the students and introduced myself, then warmed up with a few simple yes/no questions about waste. As they answered in unison, the budding educator in me warmed to the task.  

I first taught the students relevant English vocabulary such as recycle, reuse, repair, plastic, paper, glass, pollution,and biodegradable(that last word was a bit of a challenge). As Peum pulled items out of her bucket, the students would shout out, “Paper!” “Plastic!” or the name of the object in Thai, and then identify whether the item was “pollution” or could be “recycled.” In this way, the students got an English lesson while they learned to separate waste. Peum gave a brief but meaningful wrap up about how practicing the 3Rs was part of reducing consumption, just as Pau Than(the founder of the Asoke movement) taught. It was good for the students, good for the community of Srisa Asoke, and good for Thai society.

Srisa Asoke also effectively recycled farming and food waste as part of the larger Asoke development plan, “Three Professions to Save the Nation” (natural agriculture, waste management, and fertilizer production). In this livelihood system, organic-waste-turned-fertilizer is returned to the land to form a connected circuit: from agriculture, to food, to waste, and back to agriculture. Srisa Asoke honed their organic waste recycling techniques through practice and taught them to others, including the boarding school students.

My friend Jantima taught the “Three Professions” classes to the elementary students, so I would often tag along (because I had Peace Corps experience with composting, but also because the kids were cute).  One typical afternoon, the students were goofing around under shady trees as we approached, but upon spotting us, their leaders quickly issued the lineup command. Organization is no small task for thirty 6- to 11-year-olds. They shuffled themselves around, shortest to tallest, outstretching arms for proper spacing, pushing and teasing each other, until Jantima admonished them to hurry.

When finally seated, Jantima prepared the students for the afternoon’s activities, explaining that they were doing important work: waste feeds fertilizer, fertilizer feeds plants, and plants feed people. She then requested volunteers for the tasks of watering the compost piles, recycling mushroom cultivation bags (which had to be emptied of compostable growing medium), and mixing fertilizer (which entails layering various green waste materials and turning them to aid the aerobic decomposition process). Since Peum was there to help oversee the fertilizer processing, Jantima and I spent the next two hours going back and forth between the waterers and recyclers. Besides teaching the students, we also acted as referees, calling fouls and time-outs as they jumped in the compost piles and sprayed each other with the hose.

 While reducing consumption is clearly related to the Buddhist ethics of moderation and non-attachment, the Asoke practice of actively recycling waste has a much more pragmatic feel to it. To begin with, Thais don’t seem to throw things out as much as Americans do, from what I observed in rural Thailand. When I lived there during my Peace Corps service, curb-side trash pick up didn’t extend outside major city limits, which made me hyper aware of the waste I generated. The choices were to save it or burn it. And when you live in impoverished conditions, you use what you can as long as you can.

 But given the Asoke emphasis on the Three Professions to Save the Nation, the deeper motivation is likely to promote self-reliance. By practicing this subsistence lifestyle, the average Thai could comfortably support herself and her family. Take Reun for example—Jantima’s friend from home who worked in Srisa Asoke’s kitchen. As an Isan farmer and mother, she was quite concerned with self-reliance. When I asked community members to take three photographs of what was most important in the community, Reun focused on natural agriculture, organic fertilizer, and microorganisms (water steeped with fruit peels and sugar used to accelerate plant growth).

The captions she wrote next to her photographs explain why:

I like agriculture because . . . we plant vegetables ourselves, eat them ourselves, and use them ourselves. It is economical—we don’t have to buy [food]—and it’s also safe from polluting substances.

I like organic fertilizer because you can make it yourself and use it in the household to put on the vegetable garden. You don’t have to buy it from the market and waste money.

I like microorganisms because . . . you don’t have to buy outside substances to accelerate [the growth of] flowers and fruit. That kind makes the soil bad. . . . The best is what you make and use yourself.

Each caption speaks to the benefits of producing things for oneself rather than buying from the market. And judging from the enthusiasm about the Three Professions to Save the Nation among Asoke members as well as outsiders who came to Srisa Asoke for 3 Profession training seminars, Reun was certainly not alone in these sentiments.

Lesson: Reduce waste for more financially and environmentally sustainable lifestyles.

Americans are no strangers to at least one of the 3Rs: recycle. For most, this amounts to putting recyclable household waste into the bin marked “recycling” and setting it out for curb-side pick-up once a week. Where it went after that was rarely questioned until 2018, when newspapers began reporting on the downfall of recycling programs. China was now refusing to import recycling from the US and other countries, waste companies running out of warehouse space resorted to dumping it in already over-burdened landfills or incinerating it, and cities started to abandon their recycling programs because rates were skyrocketing. It became clear that this sort of “recycling,” while never a factor in household accounting, was now a liability for municipalities, nations, and the earth as a whole. With the world’s waste already at critical mass and projected to double by 2025, the time is ripe for a new approach to waste that is both financially and environmentally sustainable—one that turns waste into an asset for the material wellbeing of people and the planet.

This is not actually news to the global community (i.e., the United Nations), who prioritized “responsible consumption and production” in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to achieve by 2030.  Within this goal, two targets specifically relate to waste. One simply aims to “substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.” The other addresses food: “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.” Because the United Nations’ charge covers wellbeing in both developed and developing countries as well as global issues like environmental deterioration, we can rest assured that meeting SDG targets like waste reduction will result in tangible benefits for us all.

Bringing the discussion back to the individual level, reducing waste does indeed have benefits for our personal wellbeing. Personal finance bloggers regularly mention reducing waste in their multi-pronged approach to financial security (along with earning enough income, minimizing debt, and saving/investing for emergencies and retirement).  It’s framed this way: how can I use the resources I have now to reduce my need to spend money tomorrow? This is what is known as thrift (the focus of this chapter) or frugality: economizing means to a certain ends. Take for example Elizabeth Willard Thames, author of the Frugalwoodsblog and a new book, Meet the Frugalwoods, and her husband, Nate, who embraced extreme frugality in order to “achieve financial independence, quit the cubicle jobs that made us so unhappy, and create a simpler life of purpose in a rural setting.” Which they did before they were 32, on a homestead in Vermont. Thames explains:

Nate and I began to uncover far-reaching advantages to frugality that outstripped the mechanics of spending less cash and growing our net worth. We’d started out with an urgency around saving money, but it evolved to be about much more than that. It became a wholesale lifestyle transformation.

What they found beyond the immediate financial benefits of repurposing their waste was satisfaction in doing things themselves, a repertoire of new self-sufficiency skills, and the empowering sense that they could and would rely on themselves long into the future.

The ethnographic record is packed with societies all around the world that value frugality. For example, in Columbia, Steven Gudeman (my dissertation advisor) and his research partner observed that in contrast with profit-driven capitalists, swidden agriculturalists aim to “sustain” rather than “gain.” They theorized that subsistence-based economies strive to achieve a level of production sufficient for the continual reproduction of their system; anything left over (the surplus) is considered progress. The question remains: what should be done with that surplus to generate genuine and lasting wellbeing for individuals, society, and nature?

The Asoke folks had a good idea for what to do with the surplus: put it back into the system (however broadly or narrowly that is conceived). In their livelihood model, “Three Professions to Save the Nation,” all the value is extracted from the core product, food, and what’s leftover is put back into the system as fertilizer to form a complete circuit.

This is what is now known as a circular economy. And it’s what we need to deal with our waste problem: a long-term strategy of shifting from a linear approach to provisioning our needs to a circular one. Our current linear model involves extracting resources (or buying things), using them, and then tossing them in the trash at the end of their short lifespan. A circular economy operates on the principle of keeping resources in circulation for as long as possible, with little to no waste. Circular business models are starting to get traction in the manufacturing industry as well as retail, and we can also create small-scale circular economies in our own homes. All it takes is thinking more critically and creatively about the waste we produce and how to transform it from a liability to an asset.

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