Home' SA 50s Lifestyle : SA 50 Autumn 10 Contents 25
Waste is a verb, not a noun By John R. Sabine PhD
As the second decade of the 21st
century opens, Australia is in the
process of developing and adopting
a "National Waste Policy".
This is a co-operative effort by all
governments and was signed off
through the Council of Australian
Governments (COAG) by all the
relevant environment ministers
meeting as the Environment and
Heritage Protection Council in Perth,
As the associated government
website rather grandly puts it, this
policy (subtitled "less waste, more
resources") now "sets the direction
for Australia over the next 10 years
to produce less waste for disposal
and manage waste as a resource to
deliver economic, environmental and
Yet way back in 1992 -- now almost
20 years ago -- essentially the same
process gave us the then equally-
grand "National Waste Minimisation
and Recycling Strategy". As one
commentator put it, the most
common criticism now in 2010, of
that previous effort is that it was
"never seriously implemented". Are
we likely to do any better this time? I
am not hopeful.
As I see it there is one key element
in our proposed new strategy that,
like in so many other such large and
grandiose bureaucratic documents,
will confound and confuse us for a
long time to come.
I refer to the absolute need for the
clear and accurate use of words.
For the words used are indeed most
important. Let me illustrate with
First, what exactly are we on about
here? What really is the chief
objective of this whole national
strategy exercise? Surely this must
be clearly stated in unambiguous
words. But unfortunately, not so.
On the one hand much is said in the
national document of the "danger"
to the environment if we just throw
something away. Such danger could
range all the way from the leaching
into ground and water resources
of hazardous chemicals to rubbish
simply taking up otherwise more
But then our document also devotes
much space to the fact that throwing
something away, wasting it, is
also throwing away some valuable
resource. Thus, while in any overall
policy statement these two aims
-- environmental and economic --
come neatly together ("less waste"
in the document's sub-title covers
this quite well), when one moves to
talking "strategy" then considerable
confusion reigns if the two objectives
are simply lumped together, and not
The "more resources" of the sub-
title covers only half of what the
document itself is on about. "Policy'
and "strategy" are two words that
must be carefully separated.
But if we were to skip all that -- we're
just being pedantic, some might say
-- then surely what the document is
on about is simply, waste. So how is
"waste" defined in this new grand
Surely this is the necessary first step
for any policy statement to have real
meaning, for any strategy process
to have any hope for success? How
we define or describe something
colours our whole attitude to it. But
alas, not here!
Oh yes, many thousands of words
over many pages are expended on
how, at least in theory, we might
achieve less waste and what we
might, still in theory, do with it if we
do have any of it -- but nothing on
what it actually IS.
The best the combined ministers
can do is to tell us that "the
Australian Government, in
collaboration with state and territory
governments, will introduce a
national definition ..." But surely, if
theory is ever to become practice,
then we need to know, up front
and right now, exactly what we are
This looks like developing into a
key problem for Australia's Waste
Management Industry in responding
to the government's impending
strategy. How can one manage
something, industry leaders are
asking, unless you are absolutely
certain precisely what it is you (and
the rest of society) are being asked/
cajoled/threatened to manage?
Which brings me to my third word
argument -- and the critical point
of this whole article. I go back to
the question posed earlier of an
appropriate definition for waste
-- and what such an appropriate
definition ultimately entails. There is
a problem here with grammar.
As I see it -- in contradistinction to
the way we usually use the word
-- "waste" is initially and primarily
a verb, not a noun. Anything,
everything, even whatever we
currently throw away has some
It becomes a waste (n), and thus a
problem here, only when someone,
deliberately or inadvertently, wastes
(v) it. So the problem is basically
behavioural. The solution then must
also be behavioural.
To my thinking the whole National
Waste Policy should be enlightened
by this single and simple philosophy.
Nothing at all is inherently a waste.
Waste isn't waste until somebody
says so. It becomes so only when
wasted by someone's conscious
decision. Yours? Mine? Whose?
And that is precisely why this
particular point, this word, is so
important. Simply because it
clearly and unequivocally defines
where the blame rests for all our
waste problems -- environmental,
economic, whatever. With all of us!
You, me, everybody.
If we are all part of the problem,
then we must all be part of the
solution. This is the only effective
National Waste Policy we could
The solution to our waste problem
indeed involves changing the
behaviour of those doing the
wasting, namely us, and to be truly
effective any National Waste Strategy
must be squarely aimed in that
I hope we don't have to wait another
20 years for this to happen.
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