The Patterns of a Conservation Economy
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Living Machines are complex ecosystems which provide advanced wastewater treatment.
Image by Katy Langstaff.

Waste As Resource

Industrial processes were initially designed to take resources, make products, and turn them to waste. Two centuries of take-make-waste have begun to degrade the health of ecosystems. Waste, by definition, is a foregone opportunity which is now placing a severe drag on the bioregional, national, and global economies.

In 1998, the United States produced 6.5 billion tons of waste. A significant percentage of this waste was produced in the coastal temperate rainforest bioregion. This waste includes components from raw materials extraction, materials processing and manufacturing, materials dissipated into the environment during product use, and post-consumer and municipal wastes. This volume of waste is increasing annually, as is total resource consumption. With the simple addition of future population growth, the increased social, environmental and economic stress from resource use and waste will only become worse.

This growth in the volume of waste has important total cost implications for its disposal. The economic costs associated with disposal include the escalating prices charged for using the limited capacity of our landfills and the expense of cleaning up unproductive areas created by waste. There are also major Health impacts.

One of the underlying reasons waste generation is increasing is that neither industry, retail firms, governments, nor individual consumers have an incentive to use natural resources frugally. The resources are artificially cheap, and the gross national product and other measurements of economic health do not capture the environmental and social consequences of the initial and subsequent waste production and disposal costs.

The aim of True Cost Pricing is to shift the tax burden from labor and investment (which provides no incentive for conservation) towards consumption, particularly of natural resources, virgin materials, and goods and services that pose significant environmental threats.

Not generating any external waste in the first place — through Resource Efficiency, Sustainable Materials Cycles, designing Product as Service — remains the primary strategy. Water, energy, and materials can cascade through a series of uses before leaving a facility, gradually decreasing resource quality. The Zero Emissions Research Institute has pioneered zero-waste breweries which generate a whole range of valuable by-products, including worms, compost, animal feed, and mushrooms from process "wastes". Such breweries produce several jobs from the wastestreams for every job connected with the primary product.

Any external wastestreams remaining after careful application of this strategy should all be designed to be a useful resource as locally as possible. For instance, the industrial eco-parks now being developed throughout the United States contain clusters of companies that are designed to synergistically use each other's waste heat, water, chemicals, and materials, collectively producing zero waste. Waste exchanges are most beneficial and easiest to arrange when companies are in close proximity, but even then contractual arrangements for the supply of wastestreams can be a delicate issue given the intrinsic variability of production processes.

When wastestreams have not been designed as a resource, it is often still possible to find willing customers. It may be necessary to make capital investments to alter the quality, composition, packaging, or timing of the wastestream. Waste exchanges, like the California Waste Exchange and dozens of others now springing up, allow industrial producers and consumers to find each other through listings of materials available and in demand. Such exchanges have kept thousands of tons of materials in use.

Waste as Resource can be applied in any rural or urban community as an important contribution to Local Economies and Sustainable Materials Cycles. In many instances, it creates new skilled jobs, contributing to Social Equity.

Use waste as a resource inside a facility to cascade different uses of water, energy, and materials. When external wastestreams are generated, co-locate them within a zero-waste eco-industrial park. If this is not possible, or wastestreams already exist, seek customers for them through waste exchanges, and make capital improvements as needed to provide a commercially viable form of waste.

Examples of this pattern in action:

City of Vancouver uses "Waste as Food"
One of the most crucial aspects of sustainability is reducing the amount of waste that the city produces. Organic waste actually represents the mined fertility of our soils — if this fertility is to be replaced and maintained then it is crucial that the nutrients contained in our waste be returned to the soil. Household waste contains virtually all the nutrients plants require (Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus and other micro-nutrients). Urban agriculture offers a great opportunity to use these otherwise wasted nutrients. The City already has a progressive composting program in operation although this is rarely linked to urban food production. There are also a lack of incentives and disabling regulations that mean that recycling waste-water and sewage at a local level is problematic.

Organizations whose work incorporate this pattern:

Northern California Resource Directory

California Materials Exchange

Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives


Pauli, Gunter, J. Hugh Faulkner and Fritjof Capra. Upsizing: The Road to Zero Emissions, More Jobs, More Income, and No Pollution. Greenleaf Publishing. Sheffield, UK. 2000.

Platt, Brenda and Neil Seldman. Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000. GrassRoots Recycling Network. Athens, GA. 2000.

Winter, John and Anne Marie Alanso. Waste at Work: Prevention Strategies for the Bottom Line. Inform, Inc.. New York, NY. 1999.

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Pattern Index

A Conservation Economy

Social Capital

Fundamental Needs

Subsistence Rights

Shelter For All


Access To Knowledge


Social Equity


Cultural Diversity

Cultural Preservation

Sense Of Place

Beauty And Play

Just Transitions

Civic Society

Natural Capital

Ecological Land-Use

Connected Wildlands

Core Reserves

Wildlife Corridors

Buffer Zones

Productive Rural Areas

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Fisheries


Compact Towns And Cities

Human-Scale Neighborhoods

Green Building

Transit Access

Ecological Infrastructure

Urban Growth Boundaries

Ecosystem Services

Watershed Services

Soil Services

Climate Services


Economic Capital

Household Economies

Green Business

Long-Term Profitability

Community Benefit

Green Procurement

Renewable Energy

Sustainable Materials Cycles

Resource Efficiency

Waste As Resource

Product As Service

Local Economies

Value-Added Production

Rural-Urban Linkages

Local Assets

Bioregional Economies

Fair Trade

True Cost Pricing

Product Labeling