This story appears in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
We feel bad when we throw out things that shouldn’t have become trash (like uneaten, past-its-prime produce) or expend resources needlessly (like leaving lights on when we’re away). This guilty feeling is deeply ingrained; the origins of the expression “waste not, want not” can be traced to the 1500s.
But we do waste, in ways big and small. The result is this shocking fact: Of the minerals, fossil fuels, foodstuffs, and other raw materials that we take from the Earth and turn into products, about two-thirds ends up as waste. And, more likely than not, that waste is part of a larger environmental problem.
“Plastic trash drifted into rivers and oceans; so did nitrates and phosphates leaching from fertilized fields. A third of all food rotted, even as the Amazon was deforested to produce more,” writes senior environment editor Robert Kunzig in “Is a world without trash possible?,” the cover story in this issue. And the biggest waste-caused problem? Climate change is what happens when “we burn fossil fuels and scatter the waste—carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere.”
What if we could recapture waste and turn it into something else? This concept, called the circular economy, is not entirely new. Environmentalists have espoused the reduce, reuse, recycle ethos since the 1970s. For generations, in Prato, Italy, old wool sweaters have been reduced to their yarn and rewoven into new clothes. And for decades, copper was extracted from church bells and statues; today it’s more likely to come from iPhones and flat-screens.
We sent Kunzig and photographer Luca Locatelli to document where the new circular economy is taking hold. They found a lot of examples. In New York, fungi filaments are used to create compostable packaging. In London, researchers are feeding beer waste to insects, which are made into animal feed. In hotel kitchens around the world, chefs are reducing food waste with AI garbage cans that measure it.
The idea that we might put an end to trash may seem far-fetched—and it is, but in a good way, Kunzig told me. “It reminds me of a line in Diner, a movie I love: ‘If you don’t have good dreams, you got nightmares.’ The circular economy is like that—it’s a dream we have to try to make real.”
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