Activating yourself to improve society is the best way you can live. And in doing so you‘re going to have a lot of fun.
This is, in short, the experience of Paul Connett, author of The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the planet one community at a time, written in 2013.
Professor Emeritus in Environmental Chemistry at St. Lawrence University, New York, Paul Connett is one of the world’s most authoritative figures in the Zero Waste Strategy as well as being a leading expert in the negative impact of water fluoridation on human health.
As a democratic approach, Zero Waste focuses primarily on the education of communities towards the goal of a world free from waste. Or rather, a world where waste is considered as precious resources not to be burnt or incinerated, as is still happening today in several countries.
To reach this result – today more than ever at our fingertips – raising the awareness of everybody is the first action to take, from common citizens, to local, national and international administrations and manufacturers.
But how to engage people in a big change which is in the first place cultural? Paul Connett’s story teaches that the primary, fundamental, step is to speak with as many people as possible.
For this reason, he has been travelling relentlessly from one community to another through the States and the rest of the world.
And he’s enjoyed it very much.
Interview to Paul Connett – Author of The Zero Waste Solution
Can you talk about how you became involved in Zero Waste?
I’ve travelled, met people and held conferences in 66 different countries but my battle against waste incineration started in the USA and Canada in the 1980s.
Initially I thought that waste-to-energy was a good solution but, as soon as I realised that this would produce devastating effects for the environment and wouldn’t solve the problem because it would produce ashes anyway, I started a campaign that promoted possible alternatives and informed about the damage caused by incineration.
Since the 1990s you’ve been visiting Italy to support the Zero Waste movement chaired by Rossano Ercolini. Can you summarise your experience in our country?
Having visited Italy 77 times to talk about the Zero Waste strategy, I can safely state that Italian people are wonderful.
The United States are certainly the nation where everything is possible, but this “everything is possible” is related essentially to the possibility of making money.
One side of Italy which I really love, on the contrary, is that many people work hard to improve their community and over the course of the years this has led to extraordinary results.
In addition to this, my visits to Italy have always been connected with the ZW movement, while my awareness raising activity in America at the moment is mainly dedicated to the battle against water fluoridation, a serious issue which involves Anglophone countries and makes me angry by just mentioning it.
Going back to Zero Waste, Rossano (Ercolini), Enzo Favoino (Chairman of the Zero Waste Europe Scientific Committee del Comitato Scientifico) and I have recently met with Rome’s mayor.
It’s been amazing to see that there are local policymakers who are enthusiastic – not only with words but also with facts – about the Zero Waste strategy. I’ll be in Rome again in January for another meeting to continue on the path we’ve started and I really can’t wait for it.
Other big Italian cities like Parma and Turin, thanks to their mayors and local governments, have taken concrete actions in the same direction.
You stopped teaching at university in 2006. Many people look forward to the moment of their retirement – understandably – so that they can isolate themselves from the problems of the world.
However, since your retirement instead of thinking about resting you’ve plunged yourself vigorously into raising the awareness of manufacturers, policymakers and citizens in general about the Zero Waste strategy. What is the secret of your vitality?
The slogan that children are normally taught in America is Life is about money, but to that I always reply Life is about meaning! Whichever your talents or passions or activities, make your life meaningful by activating yourself to improve society.
Finding love, having a family and friends are certainly pleasant and desirable things, but we need to relate to a larger world and we need to relate to the future. Studying the past is precious – especially in Italy where you’ve got centuries of creativity, culture, music and arts – but the other part of meaning in life is being part of creating a better future. And today it’s even more important to do that, because we’ll be very lucky if at the end of this century the standard of living will not have become worse as we keep exploiting the planet and robbing young generations of their future.
So, if you want to live longer, meet new people, open up to new ideas and keep your brain moving all the time. It also helps to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
In your life have there been any people or any books that have inspired you particularly?
One sentence that I engraved in my mind was taught to me by my Latin teacher who defined the educated person as “someone who can entertain themselves – that doesn’t mean videogames by the way – entertain a friend and entertain a new idea.”
In other words, remain active, remain involved in your community as the title of my book about Zero Waste suggests.
Then, it may sound strange to you considering my background in chemistry, but I find a lot of inspiration in music. When I travel, I love to sit down, put my headphones on and listen to classical music. It allows me to move through the past and the centuries and travel in time.
I also feel encouraged by the communities which create something innovative and good practices. For example, I’ve recently visited a school for chefs and waiters near Benevento, Southern Italy, where students are given the opportunity to do composting and grow fruit and vegetables in their schoolyard.
Doing something with your own hands is a wonderful way to help people develop their self-confidence. But positive examples, best cases are mentioned too rarely. Communities should show off when they do something good! Please, help me to make best cases known (he smiles).
As regards inspiring books, there are many, but I want to mention two in particular: Small Is Beautiful and The Ecology of Commerce. Both were written by economists – E.F. Schumacher and Paul Hawken – which is not a coincidence. I was reflecting that the stem of the words ecology and economy is the same, oikos, from ancient Greek, meaning “house”.
We speak about ecology in relation to nature, but nature is also the most efficient economist because it doesn’t waste anything. On the contrary, it recycles and reuses continually, so companies should learn from nature. We have to stop producing these throwaway objects. If a product produces waste, then it’s a wrongly designed product.
Unfortunately the environment is often exploited for sheer short-term economic profit without thinking about the consequences that such exploitation provokes.
This is indeed corporate lootism. For instance, there are many analogies between the privatisation of water (I had talked about it here, editor’s note) and waste incineration. In both cases, a small group of people with large financial resources loot the communities. They deprive them of their resources. Zero Waste is against lootism and fights the lootism of the oceans, invaded by plastic waste.
The academic world often locks itself into an ivory tower detached from the problems of real life. In your case, how did you manage to use your experience as a university teacher to work with local communities?
I started at university in 1983 and became an activist almost at the same time, in 1985. Being an activist has been crucial, because if on the one hand I used my knowledge about chemistry to inform communities, on the other hand I learnt from the day-to-day experiences and problems coming from common citizens to make my lessons all the more motivating and relevant for my students.
In both situations, I’ve always made sure that my lesson was fun. If you want to inspire people you have to use humour.
Humour helps the brain to welcome new ideas and information. So have fun! I really mean it, because if people understand that you’re having fun and enjoying what you’re doing, they’ll feel inspired and want to give you a hand.
In today’s society we often speak about progress without really reflecting on the meaning of this word. What is progress for you?
People normally tend to think that progress means technological progress. But for me progress means social progress. For example, what can we do so that in the future people feel happier by having less without making them feel miserable? It’s here that young people are crucial, because they can contribute to social progress in a way that is creative, fun and engaging and inspire others through music, dance, painting… and a little red wine!