Tag Archives: recycling

Waste Management: Biological and Technical Nutrients

William McDonough is a designer, architect and author. I reckon he is one of the greatest thinkers of our age. If you are a person who gets inspired by TED Talks or the RSA Animate website, you will be over the moon with McDonough. Google his name and you’ll see what I mean.

Central to McDonough’s philosophy is a simple maxim: waste equals food. The first time one hears this statement may be a little jarring. But take a moment and think of compost in a garden or leaf litter on the forest floor. What McDonough means is that the ‘leftovers’ of one process serve as fuel for another process. In nature there is no end-of-the-line, no landfill.

Using nature as his design inspiration, McDonough advocates for two ways by which materials should flow through industrial society. He identifies all stuff as either ‘biological nutrients’ or ‘technical nutrients.’ Biological nutrients are those that come from nature and can be returned via composting or similar biological processes over and over again.  Screen shot 2015-01-03 at 6.53.05 AM

Biological nutrients ready to return to the earth.

 Technical nutrients include things like metals, minerals and plastics. McDonough argues that all inorganic (non-living) and synthetic materials should be designed for infinite and easy recycling indefinitely.

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Some technical nutrients we found at the beach. 

The problem arises when biological and technical nutrients are mixed into what McDonough calls “monstrous hybrids,” which are very difficult to recycle or compost because of the mixture of materials with totally different properties. An example of this is a Tetra Brik ‘juice box’ with layers of aluminium foil, cardboard and plastic.

McDonough is the kind of person who would design a wastewater treatment plant for our city where so-called “sludge” is a valuable resource instead of an expensive liability. He would scoff at spending close to a million dollars on a silly, useless “odour fence.” (Where was he when we needed him!)

Using the same types of design thinking as McDonough, a very small team has helped develop an exceptionally successful waste management programme for public events in our community. You may have noticed our Big Green Flags at Connecting Families Day, Children’s Day, and Castlecliff Children’s Day. Screen shot 2015-01-03 at 6.53.23 AM

Children’s Day at Springvale Stadium.

I hope it goes without saying that we should be exhibiting positive behaviours in front of children at all of these events. One of the first things that my daughter taught me is that children are great imitators. If we engage in ‘dumpster mentality’ as a community then we are setting up our children for the same.

But littlies are not the only ones who can learn. Even the ‘old dogs’ that make the biannual pilgrimage to Springvale Park for the NZ Masters Games can learn new tricks. In 2013, a small, organised team was able to divert over 95% of the Games waste from landfill. To put this in perspective, the total volume of material that would have filled 20 jumbo dumpsters in 2011 was reduced to one in 2013.

Put another way, the equivalent of 19 jumbo dumpsters of glass, plastic, paper, cardboard and food scraps that were trucked to Bonny Glen and buried ‘forever’ in the ground in 2011 were recycled and composted in 2013.

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Castlecliff Children’s Day. 

How was it done? Simple, really. Technical nutrients (mostly glass and plastic bottles) were recycled while biological nutrients (food scraps, serviettes, paper plates, bowls and cups, beer boxes, etc) were composted. The success of this effort brought widespread attention to our city and what this extraordinary programme had accomplished. Just last week I was contacted by two people from other centres who wanted to learn more.

If you would like to be a part of the waste minimisation effort at the 2015 Games, please contact the NZMG office at the Wanganui Events Trust office at Springvale Park. 06 349 1815 or email at info@nzmg.com. Please specify that you want to volunteer for the Zero Waste programme.


Peace, Estwing



World’s Best Garlic

2015 Permaculture Principles Calendar

Available today at the REBS (River Exchange and Barter System) stall at the River Traders Market.

Relevance and the 3 R’s

I’m a slow learner: it took me four years and 100,000 words to discover that relevance is a major factor for high school students learning science. Of course I knew this already from 14 years of teaching. It is just that academia required a little more evidence before it put a D and an R before my name.

For the sake of saving another four years I will go out on a limb and say that relevance is also a major factor for adult learners. In other words, “grown ups” do their best learning when they can recognise how that learning will impact their professional or personal lives.

In my experience as a sustainability educator working with adults I see this all the time. Over the last four years I have organised over 60 free or by-donation presentations and workshops in Wanganui on topics ranging from eco-renovation to growing food to permaculture to solar energy to programming a heat pump.

Why would 35 people recently crowd into the Wanganui Garden Centre on a Sunday afternoon to learn how to grow ripe tomatoes before Christmas without a glasshouse? Because they see its relevance.

An influential thinker on my doctoral research was Stephen Sterling from the University of Bath. He suggests that for sustainability learning to be sustained, it must be owned by the learner. In other words, the learner must want to learn.

Sterling also identifies different levels of change regarding an individual’s thinking about sustainability. First order change is doing more of the same but doing it better. Recycling is an example of this because it allows us to carry on our regular habits but just put the ‘waste’ into a different bin afterward.

He describes second order change as doing better things, such as reusing bags for shopping. The big step, however, is third order change: seeing things differently. An example of this from the 3 R’s would be reducing our consumer habits altogether.

Some of this may be relevant to those Chronicle readers who recently commented on Wanganui District Council’s decision on curbside (kerbside?!?) recycling. From what I read, many of the respondents appeared to see the relevance of curbside recycling to their lives and to our community.

Paul Brooks of the Midweek certainly recognizes the relevance of Referendum 06 and what he called “a clear mandate to go ahead with kerbside recycling” (Time to Recycle Result?, Midweek, 15-10-14). Brooks identified that “Councillors have said they want to save Wanganui ratepayers the extra cost of recycleables’ collection.”

Fair enough, but if the ratepayers voted for this service in 2006, would not that be an indication of the willingness to pay? On the other hand, I’m curious where the desire to save ratepayers money was when council decided to spend over $700,000 on a useless odour fence around the treatment plant.

As a researcher I look for patterns in ‘data’, and a consistent body of evidence suggests that WDC distances itself from exhibiting commitment to weighty sustainability initiatives. For example, in all of the articles about the new recycling centre council spokespersons consistently emphasized that no rates were spent to build it. Likewise, when insulation was put in some council housing the same emphasis was made – no rates were used.

It got me thinking: Is supporting recycling in our community a bad thing? Is helping low-income seniors live in warmer healthier homes a waste of money?

On no other types of projects have I observed such a consistent emphasis by council to distance itself from the appearance of financial commitment. For example, the arts are supported whole-heartedly with significant council funding with no apologies made. Of course I am not against the arts, I am just presenting patterns easily observable in our community.

Top eco-designers will tell you that money is rarely a barrier in projects, and more often the limiting factor is human will. I tend to agree with them. Here are a few examples.

The Second Annual Whanganui Permaculture Weekend held two months ago involved hundreds of people and dozens of workshops and presentations. It had no budget.

Zero Waste Events, recently administered through Sustainability Whanganui, had its origins four years ago at the YMCA’s Connecting Families Day. It had no budget and saved the Y money.

In both cases human will carried more currency than cash.

Peace, Estwing