Waste originally implied a state of idleness. In fact, the word waste derives from the same root as vast, suggesting a negative attribution to resources that someone had not appropriated or used productively. In this vein, European settlers justified the expropriation of Native American lands by the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. The Native American way of life, relying on hunting and gathering or even nonintensive agriculture, supposedly represented idleness compared with the more intensive European agricultural practices.

Today, waste is typically associated with the unintended consequences of activity, whether production or consumption. In a simpler world, waste products could still represent a squandered opportunity. For example, Justus von Liebig (1803–1873) justifiably reprimanded the British for polluting their water with human wastes, which could ...

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