Waste & Wellbeing: How to Sustain a Good Life

The lessons I learned about material wellbeing at the intentional Buddhist community, Srisa Asoke, are pretty straightforward. Cut back on consumption to just what you need and ensure that your resources last as long as possible by reusing, repairing, and re/upcycling. This approach is not a likely path to early retirement, but it will help us feel more financially secure, with the added benefit of helping other people and the planet. The underlying message is that material wellbeing comes not from efforts to gain stuff but to sustain life.

Tip #151: Face facts about recycling

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. So 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.

Tip #152: Address waste for wellbeing

This is not actually news to the global community. The United Nations 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.

Tip #153: Secure finances with frugality

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 first T in INTENT) or frugality: economizing means to a certain ends.

Take for example Elizabeth Willard Thames, author of the Frugalwoods blog and a new book, Meet the Frugalwoods. She and her husband Nate 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.  

Tip #154: Feel satisfied with sustainable living

What “The Frugalwoods” 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. 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.

If you’re not convinced by the financial benefit of reusing, repairing, and recycling/upcycling things you might toss out or outsource, consider the satisfaction self-sufficiency brings. 

Tip #155: Aim to sustain, not gain

The ethnographic record celebrates societies all around the world that value frugality. For example, in Columbia, anthropologists observed that swidden agriculturalists aim to “sustain” rather than gain, in contrast with profit-driven capitalists. 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) becomes progress.

The question remains: what should we do 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. In their livelihood model, “Three Professions to Save the Nation,” they extract all the value from the core product, food. Then they put the leftovers back into the system as fertilizer to form a complete circuit. 

Tip #156: Start growing in circles

This is what’s 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 keeps 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. But more on that later 🙂

Next Week…

Next week we’ll get more specific with 8 tips to keep household waste out of the landfill. And squeeze out just a bit more benefit from your stuff.


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