RE: Vocabulary
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:23:05 -0500

[Forwarded from Mary Lou Van Deventer]

"Source" reduction as a term ought to be eliminated because of the vagueness
of "source." Yesterday in Oakland Bruce Nordman talked about source
reduction at a Northern California Recycling Association conference, and he
indicated (as I heard it) that he thinks "source reduction" is best conceived
of as overall materials efficiency beginning from virgin harvest and
continuing through manufacturing, production, and use. Conference organizer
Arthur Boone commented later that he has compiled six different ways people
use the term. My question is, what's the "source" - the wilderness? The
person discarding something? We could dance around that one a long time and
not get any work done. The word "source" is too vague for the phrase to be

"Waste prevention" is a function performed by all materials-efficient, reuse,
recycling, and composting methods and technologies.

"Disposal" is a clean, serviceable word used by people outside the solid
waste industry PRIMARILY to indicate that they are doing something with
unwanted goods, often as a service to a client, but the HANDLING METHOD IS
NOT SPECIFIED. Check the dictionary - it records usage and does not
prescribe. It is the single most authoritative indicator of what the public
actually understands. In my edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, the
list of usages in order of most frequent use of "dispose of" is:
- "To attend to; arrange; settle.
- "To transfer or part with, as by giving or selling.
- "To get rid of; throw out or away"
- "To eat or drink (food)."

Not one specifies landfilling or waste. That usage is peculiar to the
established garbage industry, which we are trying to supplant, and a
strategic analyst would say it is very effective industrial positioning.
Garbage and recycling compete for the supply. Using "disposal" to specify
wasting is to assist the competition's strategic positioning against our own
interests. Their success in getting us to do that is an indicator of their

In the wider cultural framework, however, disposal (usage 1) is a service
provided to a client who wants to dispose of something (usage 3). Executors
routinely dispose of estates; they do not dig holes and bury them, however,
unless they want to be sued. I am helping form a reuse association, and one
fiduciary duty of the board of directors will be, at the end of the
association's life, to dispose of its assets responsibly as specified in the
bylaws. If we were to COMMIT WASTE of the assets, I believe we could be

This new association, ReDO (the Reuse Development Organization), has adopted
a statement of purpose that says the organization will "promote reuse as an
environmentally sound, socially beneficial, and economical means for
disposing of unwanted and discarded materials." We are deliberately
positioning reuse as disposal. The other participants in the steering
committee have not been involved in solid waste and recycling debates, but
rather in recovery as a business or charitable enterprise, and there was
absolutely no controversy over this use of the word. They understood it
perfectly the first time. They had no associations of uncleanliness or

It isn't the public that needs to be educated - it is recyclers. We
recyclers have for so long regarded ourselves as a subdivision of the waste
establishment that it is hard for us to understand that we are the
replacement for waste, and we can recover powerful terms the waste
establishment wants us to think have been reserved for them. But they have
not reached the public. We have. In Richard Kashmanian's terms, recyclers
are running the race wearing solid waste's chains.

We cannot yield the use of this excellent English word "disposal" and its
serviceable concepts to the exclusive use of the people who mash and destroy
otherwise recyclable materials and claim that to be the only method of

Also, we cannot yield to them the exclusive right to charge FEES FOR THE
SERVICE OF DISPOSAL. The reuse and recycling industries will be sustainable
in perpetuity once they understand that, since they provide a better service,
they can out-compete the garbage manufacturers all day long.

When Urban Ore ran its Compost Farm for three years, we charged a disposal
fee to all users and in that way provided the bulk of the operation's income.

Using "disposal" to apply to reuse, recycling, and composting is eminently
sensible to me from the perspectives of using clear terms and strategically
positioning the industries for economic sustainability based on user fees.

Incidentally, at the same Northern California Recycling Association
conference, my topic to speak on was reuse. I said reuse is not a source
reduction technique. I hereby clarify that position as follows: when "reuse"
means using a durable product multiple times, such as washing and refilling
soda bottles, that is "source reduction" as well as "waste reduction" because
nothing has to be tossed out as unwanted. But when somebody brings Urban Ore
an unwanted desk and the company resells it, that is not "source reduction"
because somebody tossed the desk out. They just tossed it to us instead of
into the landfill. Then reuse is not source reduction, but it is waste
reduction because it has disposed of something in an environmentally sound

And waste isn't waste until it is wasted.

Yesterday at the NCRA conference, probably 85% of the speakers had shifted to
the use of "discards." Even though Richard Kashmanian thinks people will
associate something negative with the word "discards," this word deserves
another look. People who play cards will know that picking up discards as in
gin rummy, or the whole discard pile as in canasta, can be the key to
victory. In canasta, players get into major sacrificial battles to prevent
opponents from getting a rich discard pile, and to get it for themselves. My
opinion is that "discards" is neutral in connotation and therefore perfect
for our purposes.

So if I want to live conservatively, I will buy durable goods produced with
sustainable methods and develop ways of working in my life that don't make me
toss out so much. I use e-mail, for example. That's materials efficiency
and source reduction.

But if I have something I don't want anymore, I discard it. I can choose
which method disposal to use. The options are to reuse it, recycle it,
compost it (one method of recycling), or waste it.

This set of terms seems easy and clear to me. Any time I talk to the public
or to students, I have the sense I am understood. Whoever I am talking to
responds correctly every time and never so much as frowns. Only recyclers
offer resistance.

Mary Lou Van Deventer
Urban Ore