Solutions Beyond Sustainability

I believe everyone wants to do the right thing for the environment.

So it’s an awareness/education piece around what is the ‘right thing’ for the environment, why isn’t the right thing happening currently and how to change our habits towards the right thing moving forward. But how do we know what is the ‘right thing’?

A great place to start is the Trajectory of Ecological Design in last weeks blog post, where you can place almost any product or service on a continuum of negative, nuetral or positive impact. However there are some additional frameworks we can use to gauge what is beneficial to working alongside nature, as opposed to against it, and through that discover best practise for whatever purchase, action or behaviour which may or may not be the ‘right thing’ as it were.

The Natural Step use The Funnel to manage complexity and define future positioning. I drew up a funnel mapping the complex issues facing waste here in The Bay of Plenty, with each influence leading us closer to ‘the funnel’ which we will need to pass through in order to move beyond sustainability.

Funnel of Bay of Plenty Waste

Conveniently, the Funnel and the Trajectory of Ecological Design overlap really nicely.
The Funnel being a metaphor for sustainable development as a squeeze and regenerative development being an opening beyond the squeeze.

What I love about this framework is that it enables us to map complexity against the past, present and future drivers of change. Seeing these decreasing and increasing issues being pinched and pushed towards the narrow gates of a perceived future enables us to envision what would make it through, and how it might open up on the other side.

Another excellent resource for managing complex change has been adapted from ‘A framework for thinking about change’ by Knoster T, Villa R and Thousand J. For a slightly different, more clear verison, check it out on The Learning Accelerator

This table helps us identify what is blocking a project to creating change. By identifying what element of the project is missing (vision, skills, incentives, resources, action plan) we are able to conclude with an outcome. It is also possible to reverse engineer the table by identifying the outcome that you are experiencing and trace it back to missing element.

When we were unable to process the organic waste at Revital, the Compost Collection lost a vital resource. Following this framework to the fifth line down (where resources are blacked out) you can see this leads to frustration. When trying to revive the service, I experienced resistance (from myself) due to there being a lack of incentives (fourth line down),

Sustainability as a flawed end goal

A key message in the ‘Beyond Sustainability’ workshops I toured over summer is that ‘Sustainability’ is a short sighted end-goal, existing only as a knife edge between ‘Degeneration’ and ‘Regeneration’. A great way to understand this is through Bill Reed’s Trajectory of Ecological Design

In short, to sustain a flawed system would only perpetuate flawed outcomes. It is essential for future-sound solutions to be designed to a benchmark beyond sustainability.

This framework is good for:
– mapping and describing trends
– auditing behaviour as degenerative or regenerative

Here’s the same framework, spiralling vertically.

Take, Make, Waste describes our linear economy. Conventional and deeply degenerate. Desperately needing to shake the waste industries’ response, which for decades has been to cram societies waste into landfills as cheaply and invisibly as possible. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ seemed to be the mandate from previous generations. However as awareness and education over the last few decades bear fruit, the obsolescence of the dominant methodology is increasingly revealed. While the lowest hanging fruit has long been harvested by the private sector, governing bodies respond to the more difficult challenges at glacial speeds.

Why Waste was set up to contribute to the shift of our waste industry away from its’ present conventional mode (far left on this framework) and bring it further towards the right. Our initial offering, the Compost Collection, was loved by Bay of Plenty businesses and many were left angry, sad and frustrated when it ended in December last year .

But where would the Why Waste compost collection occupy this framework? It’s a tricky one to gauge; by getting biodegradable waste out of the landfill, we can start in the same kind of ‘Green’ or ‘Eco’ place as recycling would be. Seeing as it then goes on to return that material to the soil via composting – this might push it into a more Restorative place. However if that soil is on a conventional farm or horticulture block using herbicides, pesticides and industrial fertiliser it would degenerate down the spectrum somewhat.

Focusing soley on the outcome doesn’t take into account all impacts and unfortunately the methods for collection do not fare well. The externalised cost of driving around picking up waste for compost is largely invisible. From conflict in the middle east to CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and every social and environmental impact in between, reconciling the impacts of driving vs the benefits of collecting compost would be a stretch. Then again it may not be, due to the methane which compostable material produces when it breaks down anaeronbically (like in landfills) being 23 times worse than the CO2 being exhausted from the van. Metrics such as these can be difficult and expensive to define, and they often miss the point –
Adding and subtracting a few million carbon parts per million in the atmosphere isn’t going to change our linear take, make, waste culture, indeed, it threatens to justify continuing it.

There is a similar effect when considering the social impact on behaviour change. By taking their waste ‘away’, we enable waste producers to continue as usual without needing to address shortfalls in procurement or practice. The idea that cleaning up people/business/societies mess is in some part reinforcing that the culture of waste is acceptable. Further to this, it is to a certain degree ‘supported’ by the same operator (Why Waste) seeking to transform it.

This kind of analysis might conclude that while the action itself reduces waste to landfill, avoids greenhouse gas generation and builds soil, it might have a negative net impact in the long term. However we haven’t yet taken into account the following that we were able to build off the back of all the ‘hard yakka’ and ‘walking the walk’, presenting the bigger picture to a receptive audience over a number of different platforms. Using the compost collection as a vehicle for generating awareness, providing education, and sparking inspiration was an effective way to create a wider scope of impact beyond the realm of waste minimisation.

If the compost collection is analogous to Why Waste being at the bottom of the cliff cleaning up people at the top, then it could be observed that as time went on our voice came to be heard from the top of the cliff, which resulted in other people heralding the same cause. In behaviour change, these people are called ‘early adopters’ and we’ve found it to be a very effective way to identify these individuals and feed them information and opportunities for involvement.

To conclude, the action of the Why Waste compost collection could be considered ‘sustainable’, while the methods used were ‘green’ or ‘eco’ at best. Meanwhile the awareness, education and inspiration that came from that project could be considered remarkably restorative.

Frame taken from Happen Film’s feature length film ‘Living the Change’

A critical enquiry into our services

A reluctant watchdog in the sustainability world, I often wind up calling out businesses/organisations for greenwashing – or ‘eco virtue-signalling’ as I like to call it. It’s a total drag focusing on the negative, which is the wrong way to frame the discussion around change. Plus it takes up heaps of my time which turns out I can’t even bill them for haha.

What I’ve learned however, is that everyone has a different moral compass and that people often believe they’re doing the right thing, even if it doesn’t stand up in someone else’s opinion.

How can I encourage others to act with integrity within the sustainability movement?
My best answer: act with integrity and lead by example. In this case, running a critical enquiry on our services in the hope of revealing any hypocrisy, and potentially crystallising a new direction should the need arise.

In our ‘Leadership for Change’ course (with Otago Polytechnic), we adopt a range of frameworks to simplify complex issues and communicate them in a common language. By mapping Why Wastes main offerings across these frameworks, I’m seeking to see our work as part of a system – a valuable viewpoint when our perception is conditioned by reductionism and separation. Nothing is separate in nature, and the same is true of business, society or any other human organisation. Their very ‘nature’ is an interconnected web of relationships, similar to that of a mature ecosystem. That word nature seems to keep popping up, turns out we’re not separate from that either.

Stay tuned for future blog posts as we dive into a gritty audit/analysis of the true impact of our solutions.

Hot water compost …Free energy from biological processes.

Two weeks ago we made a hot aerobic compost. But it was no ordinary compost… We wanted to explore whether we could attain heat from purely biological processes – in other words, infinitely sustainable processes.


Jean Pain building a compost heap

In the 1970s, French inventor and innovator Jean Pain designed a system which provided his home with free hot water and combustable energy using the heat and gas generated through the composting process. Using machines and the scrub he cleared from a nearby forest, he made compost heaps so large they provided heat for an entire year.

But could we build one without machinery and zero budget? How much material could we gather? How much water could we heat? Our experiment had to be realistic – how about enough water for someone to take a bath?

Turns out we got enough heat for four people, and we had to add cold water to get in! Even after going through the inefficient garden hose from the compost to the bath tubs, the water came out at 44°C. Damn thats hawt!

Piping hot at 44 degrees Celsius

Piping hot at 44 degrees Celsius


Here’s Leo running us through the setup.

The compost we built was originally about 3 cubic metres, shrinking to about 2 once it peaked. We scored a water drum from the good people at the Te Maunga transfer station and built the pile around it. We layered in the funky food waste from our compost collection with a variation of different materials, all contributing different elemental or structural benefits. These include: Hardwood sawdust, scrub and dead grass, horse manure, cow manure, leaf litter, clay, cardboard, old compost, new compost, fungal compost, lime and paramagnetic rock dust.

The drum set in place as we shovel organic matter around it

The drum set in place as we shovel organic matter around it

Why Waste compost collection hot water experiment

Building the compost around the water drum

There was also a hose running through the compost, but the compost got so large that we lost it 😛

finished compost heap rugged up to keep the heat in

The trick is to catch it at the peak of it’s heat profile. When a compost peaks, the heat inside reaches a high temperature point and drops back off. This signifies a lack of oxygen, which slows down microbial activity. At this point it’s a good idea to turn your compost to aerate it again. Because we were keen for a bath, we pre-empted our composts peak at 65°C in the processes of draining 100 litres of heat out of the compost. Not ideal, but the heat bounced back pretty easily. Worth noting that it is important to never let your compost get to 70°C as this is the point when all your thermophilic bacteria die and precious nitrogen converts into a gas and escapes into the atmosphere.

Jean Pain also captured methane from his compost, does that mean our next experiment can involve fire?



This bus in the UK is powered by humanure! …Imagine powering our society from our organic waste stream. Why Waste it when you can use it?


At Why Waste we are helping our contributors divert their biodegradable waste from landfill. This is very important, but it’s only phase one of the solution.


The big plan is to direct the Bay of Plenty’s organic waste stream into a thermophilic digester, which produces not only amazing compost but a source of powerful fuel. This fuel can be used to generate electricity, power vehicles, produce heat – the Bay’s very own source of renewable energy!