Overcoming the culture of waste – Deishin Lee

Deishin Lee, MIT Sloan Visiting Assistant Professor

One of the key messages in the Pope’s recent TED Talk was an entreaty to overcome the “culture of waste.” I wholeheartedly agree — this is a critical issue. The question is how do we even think about taking on such a large problem?

The “culture of waste” can be viewed through many different lenses: moral, philosophical, societal — just to name a few. But in addition to these broader notions of waste, there is simply the mundane notion of trash. Although mundane, trash is omnipresent, and perhaps understanding our mentality towards it can yield insights into broader cultural issues on waste.

Embarking on the study of waste (of the trash kind) several years ago, I was surprised to find that most waste is generated on purpose. Aside from the trash that we discard as individuals (municipal solid waste), there is trash (industrial waste) generated by supply chain processes that make the products we use. It turns out that the amount of industrial waste is orders of magnitude greater than municipal solid waste, which is already staggering. Moreover, the generation of this kind of waste is codified in the processes we use to produce our goods.

Pick any product and look at how it is produced. You will find that along with the desired product, whether it be an automobile or a hamburger, the process that produced it also produced other stuff, which we generally refer to as waste. An industrial example is production of pig iron, a key ingredient for making steel. In the process of making pig iron, a waste stream of oxides and silicates called slag is generated.

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