TED Conversations

Paul Palmer

Director, Zero Waste Institute


This conversation is closed.

How about dropping the drumbeat emphasis on the problem and making room for the solutions.

If there were two available speakers on a medical epidemic - one who wrung his .hands about how terrible it is and one who had a working cure, TED and everyone else would surely focus on the cure. Yet when we talk about trash and waste and disposal and garbage and the Pacific Gyre, the exact opposite happens. Endless books and articles and TED talks lament the problem. Where the garbage goes after discard is considered fascinating in one book, article and video after another. Garbage dumps, ragpickers, poisoned waterways are part of popular culture. Solutions are nowhere to be seen in popular literature. Recycling is not a solution to anything - it is universally a failure. Yet deeper analyses, such as Zero Waste Theory which is what I work on, seems to be viewed with suspicion. Surely there can't be any solution. Somehow this is known in advance. We may cure cancer, but never the drive to make garbage. We must just live with it forever. Very peculiar!

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    Apr 18 2012: Paul

    Yes i saw the benefits and envisioned how many throw away pieces will make it into our rubbish bins as people play with it when they first buy one,have a look at this TED,you might find it interesting if you haven't already viewed it.

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      Apr 18 2012: To Ken - Thanks for sending me (and readers) to that video about amazing new ways of assembling silk proteins into new and useful forms.

      I assume you wanted to see my reaction to the impact such a material could have on waste generation.

      It isn't clear. Is the production process for the protein better than other commonly used processes? Is it still dependent on silkworms or done by genetic engineering or fermentation or chemical reactions. He offers no clues.

      I would also ask the question: what happens to the bare material if it is available from a product that has worn out or broken. At one point he states that it dissolves in water. Obviously silk does not dissolve in water unless perhaps the pH is quite high. Can the material be dissolved and then recombined into brand new silk? Again, he gives us no clue.

      What really grabbed me is that he displays a very unfortunate ignorance about waste in which he joined by a large audience of clearly intelligent people. They swallowed his reference to biodegradability uncritically (they clapped) when all that he was putting forward is the same greenwash that the garbage and recycling industries are promoting. I can assure you that Archer Daniels Midland does not share his misunderstanding. They are the ones who make biodegradable polylactic acid. They churn it out by the millions of pounds in huge reactors and laugh all the way to the bank as the disposable goods are discarded. It makes no difference what happens to disposable goods after discard. The waste has ALREADY taken its toll through unnecessary production. The real assault on the planet is marshaling factories, raw materials inputs, energy inputs and human labor to make something shoddy that could be made robust and reused endlessly.

      So, his applications are totally cool but he goes off the rails when he mounts his uninformed claims about waste. His attitudes are now publicly and widely accepted, more's the pity for a groaning planet.
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        Apr 18 2012: This site and organization is primarily to grow an awareness to innovate through ideas though it has an underlying agenda but so does every system on the planet,it isn't perfect .The speaker doesn't go into the specifics which i believe the technology is still in the research phase so we won't be seeing anything soon or in the next 5 years if not more.This technology in my opinion will cutout our dependence on plastic and paper packaging but that depends on whether like you said it can degrade safely.

        Why don't you try out for you're local TEDx or whatever TED is near you, it would be great to see your idea on the vid section as it is another path that the world could take if it will listen.
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          Apr 18 2012: To Ken Brown: Thanks for the suggestion about applying to do a presentation on TED.

          I have done that twice. Neither time did I receive even the courtesy of a reply.

          It was precisely that frustration that led me to frame the premise of this conversation in the unusual, kind of negative way that I did. I see that people are invited onto TED (and onto the NY Times book list and TV interviews) in order to tell people how bad garbage generation is, about the Pacific Gyre and to promote assumptions that I consider to be what I call "first ideas". By that I mean that people who have never thought in any deep or analytical way about the role of garbage generation or waste creation in society simply express the first ideas that pop into their heads as though they were settled results. Most often these are ideas that the very profitable and powerful garbage industry wants people to believe because it serves their purposes well. Ideas such as biodegradable products being desirable or recycling solving problems. If you look into these ideas, the common feature is that it is fine to discard products quickly and to create garbage because it will somehow go away. Obviously this view sits well with the garbage industry. The ideas that I promote, that we need to stop managing garbage and simply eliminate it, threaten their business and so must be suppressed.

          This may amaze you, but so far, in twenty-five years of writing and promoting Zero Waste, during which I was the first person to ever use the term Zero waste publicly, created a successful company for reusing every chemical produced by Silicon Valley and others, wrote the only book on Zero Waste, managed a large website and watched most cities around the world pass ZW resolutions, not one radio or TV station or public presentation forum (think conferences on waste - even Zero Waste) has ever wanted to hear my ideas. Does that sound like censorship?

          Maybe you want to make a suggestion to TED. I've tried.

          Thanks again.
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    Apr 17 2012: Paul

    Paul would you look at this TED? what do you see? This is a good 5 to 10 yrs away possibly before it spreads,from your point of view Good or Bad?

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      Apr 17 2012: To Ken Brown:
      I looked at the TED video you offered. I've been watching 3D mfg. for a few years now. I went to a design show in San Jose CA and saw a fully articulated golden metal linked bracelet that had been made all at once without subsequent removal of material. That blew me away. I have no doubt that many parts of mfg. will be revolutionized.

      However, I observe that there is no way to make items out of wood or other natural materials such as minerals. I notice that the cost of creation is always skirted by these companies, as in this video which tells me it is prohibitive. You may be able to buy a desktop 3D printer for $300 but it will be like any cheap printer. It won't do much.

      All new technologies are initially sold on their ability to overturn the previous world. They all fail to do that (except maybe the internet) .except in limited ways. The commercial milieu is complex beyond simple prediction. For example, will the ability to make replacement parts lead to a mentality of making all parts shoddy and disposable so that they can be often replaced? Will there be millions of disposable plastic junk alligators and pandas? I've seen these for sale made by 3D printing.

      One topic they always ignore is the source of the metal and plastic input materials. These will be made in large smelters and reactors as today. And inks, paints, cements, pharmaceuticals, chemicals.

      When they talk about a low carbon footprint, they ignore the manufacturing of these machines. Will they be made in huge factories, just like other electronic devices? Every new technology is sold on the basis of solving environmental problems. Will the machines be disposable like iphones and ipads?

      Of course, immensely intricate products and models and bespoke medical implants are an amazing capability. No question.

      I want to commercialize plastic post stabilizers. I can't imagine ever making them one at a time. They will need to be made en masse by injection molding.

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    R H 30+

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    Apr 16 2012: I have the same belief about 'social service' that Zero Waste has about mfg's and garbage. If we actually had enough regard for our fellow man when we made decisions in the first place, we wouldn't need to 'repair' the current fall-out of neglect, marginalization, gross quality of life inequity, and inefficient human capital use with 'humanitarian' relief, welfare, human rights groups, trade/employee unions, environmental protection groups, and the myriad other 'social service' efforts that are a complete backward waste of human talent and billions of now uninvested capital resources. I agree that efficient design is the key. But how do we begin to make the transition? How does a company make a product today that can be zero-waste sustainable and be profitable enough to sustain the company? I have seen the theory of charging companies for the waste processing they generate to incentivize them to zero-waste. But the cost would make them uncompetitive world-wide. How do we start?
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      Apr 17 2012: To R.H. - For the most part, your comments on social progress are surely incontrovertible by most of the readers here, However, at the end of your comment you make this statement which I don't accept. "I have seen the theory of charging companies for the waste processing they generate to incentivize them to zero-waste. But the cost would make them uncompetitive world-wide. Your assumptions may be on the mark in the arena where they are used but I have never suggested any such approach. I have no use for waste processing, waste recycling or waste management. When I say Zero Waste, I emphatically do not mean reducing what goes into the dump or the garbage can. That is not a valid measure of wasting. Waste happens when huge factories and industries operate to produce unnecessary products. I have no interest in what the garbage industry does or doesn't do. The recyclers have fallen on their faces, wasting all their time worrying about garbage. What is important is to design new products and ways of processing and marketing that do not imply any assumptions of discard. That was part of my original lament - that people are wasting their time always looking backwards and never forwards. Then your conclusion about becoming uncompetitive only makes sense if all you mean is that you keep on doing everything the way it was always done i.e. wastefully and stupidly, and add on one more expensive process to clean up the mess you have already made. That won't work. That is why we must turn our backs on the conventional approach, urged by the recyclers and the old environmentalists, and not simply accept failed assumptions about making lots of waste willy-nilly. Let's change designs so that waste is not designed for and not acceptable.

      Thanks for making that distinction plain.
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        R H 30+

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        Apr 17 2012: Thanks for responding. I guess I wasn't clear. The comment you referred to was an example (only) of a method of 'transitioning' from the current state of inefficient production into zero-waste methods. That was the question I asked: How do we realistically transition? How do we change the currently ubiquitous engineering and mfging productivity results? How do we get there - to zero-waste engineering and mfg? The one method I cited was just that, a method to incentivize mfg's to convert to zero-waste. So please, answer the question. I'm very clear on your points and agree. What is your recommended method to change/convert/transition current mfg methods to zero-waste?
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          Apr 17 2012: To R.H. (2nd) I'm sorry if I misinterpreted but I can't see how I did. When you come back now to clarify, you make the same points as you did the first time which I tried to counter.

          I will try to find some different words. You treat Zero Waste as though it were the conventional goal that activists use. They want to gain some monopoly on social power (by passing regulations or laws or bans for example) and make people do things their way, which they see as superior. You too are looking for a way to transition "to zero-waste engineering" by changing society for the better.

          Yes, I too want to live in a zero waste world but I don't see any way to take anyone by the scruff of the neck and shake them until they "see the error of their ways". A better way of designing products and processes, using a better set of social goals; building businesses that incorporate those better goals is the approach I favor. GE, General Motors, Dow etc. will not suddenly change their spots. There are already many people like you and I who want something better. The irresistible push to solar power is a great example. There will be solar panels whether GE wants it or not. Vermont Yankee will be shut down whether Entergy manages to obstruct and delay or not. Designing intelligently is not more expensive, it is cheaper for customers and more people understand external costing. More and more people understand that recycling is just a greenwash for garbage. There are constantly improvements in architectural designs for less waste, though a zero waste approach eludes them. But the soil is being prepared for a basic market for new, zero waste businesses that sell products designed for perpetual reuse. Shoddy design is only "needed" for a saturated market. The market for good design is small and growing, and doesn't need constant discard to create demand.

          It isn't a "transition" I'm after. It's a revolution in design.
          Paul Palmer
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        R H 30+

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        Apr 18 2012: (in response to 'misinterpreted':) "A better way of designing products and processes, using a better set of social goals; building businesses that incorporate those better goals is the approach I favor." There, was that so hard? You answered the question. Your negative interpretation of my 'motives' is unfounded and insulting. Your 'solution' is a 'revolution in design' which ostensibly will make other modes of production obsolete - but I'm not sure. You don't clarify that point. I'm trying to get from A to B. You're saying there is no A to B, only B. Well, what do we think all the 'A' people are going to do when there's only B? Well, there's only two choices: To B or not to B (I couldn't resist). Thanks for bringing this issue to my attention.
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          Apr 18 2012: To R.H. 3d - I am truly sorry to have left you feeling insulted. I didn't mean to do anything like that at all. I hope you didn't really mean that I questioned your motives - only your analysis.

          In your terms, A and B, I'm not imagining that I or we could suddenly eliminate all of the A people. Well, maybe ultimately, that would be desirable but for a start, what I am hoping for is to start at just one corner. One company, making one superior product that can then be expanded to be a core ZW company making a whole line of ZW products. Maybe if it is really successful it will be widely copied.

          Yes I know I did say a revolution in design, but I didn't mean an instant worldwide explosion of different design. Maybe something like the way that digital information swept the world. Wouldn't that be something? I can't imagine that in a hundred years all manufacturing won't be Zero Waste based. It's got to come. The logic of living on a finite planet cannot be long ignored. This economic system is unsustainable.

          Would you like to get involved? Are you a business person?
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    Apr 16 2012: Paul, While I really like the direction that you're heading with this, I don't know if it can be sold to corporate America. Their one and only motive is to serve the god of profit. I LOVE the idea of a repairable car battery, range, oven, or anything else...So long as I can get parts. Problem is corporate America is dragging us down the other road willy-nilly because it is more profitable for them to force us to buy an new dishwasher, car, battery, etc. than it is profitable for them to sell repair parts.

    I see this every day in the Commercial Appliance industry (commercial cooking & laundry equipment). After about 8 years of service life they will "obselete" a piece of equipment. (make the parts un-available or require a +$1200 retrofit, and force the client to replace the unit) Autos are the same way now... My first car was a 1969 Olds Delmont 88 which ran like a top until at least 1995. They were designed for a 20 year life. Now, I have a 1995 Buick that I am going to have to replace because there are no parts available for it. The Buick was designed for a 10 year life. I think the question is "How do we force the corporations to clean up their messes?"
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      Apr 17 2012: Kris: I agree with your sentiment and always have. That is why I have never put together a plan to convince corporate America of anything. There are hundreds of billions of dollars being spent to support that kind of attitude so I suppose it would take a similar amount of money to swerve attitudes into a different direction.

      What I am proposing is to take advantage of the one fairly free endeavor that is still allowed - the freedom to start a business and compete in a marketplace. I propose that a core group join together to manufacture and sell products which are so superior for their customer's use that they succeed on the basis of that superiority. Not only has thirty years of environmental consciousness raising created a new customer base for the right kind of product but the realities of resource exhaustion and terrestrial pollution and sentiments similar to yours and mine are asking for a new approach to products.

      The corporate managers who claim that quick obsolescence means more profit do not control the entire market. There is plenty of space within the market for alternate ways of framing support. We don't need to pull an Apple and try to capture 50 to 75% of the possible market. 1% would be a sizable business and 5% would be fabulous. Are these reasonable target numbers? The first product I would like to commercialize is the fence post stabilizer I call Straight Up. This replaces an obsolete way of installing posts and standards that has not changed in 2000 years. It makes sense for the customer and saves him money while tickling his pride in using a better designed product.

      Does this approach tackle your objections?
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    Apr 16 2012: My question comes from curiosity, not from suspicion. What does a zero-waste cellphone battery look like?
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      Apr 16 2012: Edward: That's a very reasonable question. I think I will punt on this one because that is more informative. I have one preliminary question though. Did you go to the ZWI website and look under Projects>Batteries first? Most people ask me questions like that expecting what I call a magical answer. They have a problem or a pet curiosity and they expect to suddenly get a complete answer without any work attached. I could offer a discussion but what is more important is to point out the PROCESS by which one finds answers to all such questions. First, one acknowledges that a new design is needed and is valuable (so far that conclusion is fiercely resisted by the public) and then one sets up the normal kinds of research pathways for finding those designs. One funds Zero Waste departments in universities and sets up a Zero Waste Research Institute. Then one brings in technologists from the battery and cellphone and reuse industries (because by then there WILL be a reuse industry consisting of those persons and companies that are commercializing reusable designs). Then one works on your question and on the thousands of other designs that are currently producing low grade, un-reusable products.
      I hope this answers your question in an acceptable way, even if you didn't get a free, "magical" answer.
      You will find a little more in the Archives section of the ZWI website.
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        Apr 16 2012: Thanks for the additional input Paul. Magic is the opposite of what interests me. I have grown weary of technical proposals requiring aluminum foil hats and try to get an early, definitive example of experiments on record. Alas, my laziness is revealed again. I will go to your website. Thanks and keep up the good work!
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    Apr 16 2012: Ken:
    Social problems don't yield to magical solutions. They require hard work, thought, innovation and experimentation. The TED talks that report on solutions report often on years of development, investment and testing work that paid off. I am reminded for example of Tal Golesworthy's report on his aorta wrap. If you go to www.zerowasteinstitute.org you will find that garbage is produced because products are designed specifically for discard. That is part and parcel of their design. When it breaks, wears out, becomes obsolete, or whatever, you, as someone who hates waste, have few options. Not only is the product itself designed for early discard but so is the industrial, commercial and social milieu in which its use is embedded. The assumptions leading to discard and waste were assumed for you long before you even thought about them. The way to break that vicious cycle is to design for reuse, not for discard. This then is the road to solving garbage problems. Change the thinking and the design. So far as the material design is concerned, many examples are worked out and presented. Principles of the approach are also presented. The theory has many ramifications, not all of which can be summarized here, but that is the gist of it. The planet will thank you.
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    Apr 16 2012: Alright,what is it?