You Can't Escape Energy: Losing a trail of waste

Although nothing happens without energy, the human world tends to use disproportionate amounts of energy to accomplish tasks. We have created tools and concentrated fuels or pools of energy that provide "work-arounds" of the natural world. And that can be great! But it can also be inordinately wasteful. By comparison, the natural world's energy use has zero waste. Everything is used for something. Waste products from some things support processes for others. As I lay the foundation for Backcountry Bonsai, I'm doing so with deep consideration of biomimicry, an awesome field you'll hear loads more about over time that bases design on naturally-occurring functional structures. For the moment, however, I want to consider that concept of zero waste... and how we can re-evaluate our approach to energy requirements in the field and at home. Sound too heavy? It's not, I swear. It's really pretty light:


Use less.


Instead of trying to do the same thing in basically the same way, see what you can eliminate. Conceptually, what I'm suggesting is a whole-hearted commitment to change. It's not just "How can we do 'X' more efficiently," but is significantly "How can we eliminate 'X'?"


Instead of assuming that given components are vital to a product or process, and that modifying them is the key to efficiency, I suggest that we start with trying to eliminate a component or operation entirely. Doing that gets rid of product, labor, & weight costs associated with an item all the way back to extracting the raw resource. A good common backcountry example might be the cookpot sets popular with many backpackers. A typical set could have a big pot, a smaller pot, a couple of bowls, a frypan, a lid, one or two removable handles, and a storage bag. They're nifty. Tidy. Organized and "with it." But you're cooking on a single one-burner stove. Boiling water for a one-pot meal. Even with two people, all you need is one pot & handle, one lid, and a bowl for the person not eating out of the pot. The other things are extraneous. Wasteful. You can eliminate the additional weight and bulk of a pot, a frypan, a bowl, maybe a handle, and a storage bag... something like half the weight of the set. If you could work this backwards and buy only what you need, eliminating half the cookset wouldn't just save you the weight and money, but would save the raw materials, labor, processing energy, and transportation of that extra stuff... it would conserve resources & reduce energy expenditure. It's an approach that gets us closer to the zero waste inherent to the wild.


It’s a broad-reaching philosophy and way of life that could have massive implications in our daily lives. In fact, I think we’re seeing parallels in the burgeoning artisanal movements such as slow food, tiny homes, and maker spaces. There’s a sense of vibrancy, and of satisfaction, appreciation. There’s more connection with the development process, the product, and the purchase exchange. Big business and conventional wisdom tell us that you can’t earn a living if your production process is here in the US, but a lot of small business owners are discovering that it’s perfectly feasible… in no small part, I believe, by streamlining the entire process… by, yep, eliminating waste. By selling direct, instead of selling to middlemen who sell to middlemen who sell to retailers who sell you the product… the price being marked up each step of the way, it fails to reflect the essence of the product itself.


Our in-house design and fabrication considers all aspects of cost—not just short-term monetary outlay & profit margin, but attempted reflection of true cost. What’s the impact of producing the raw material, getting it to production, forming it, shipping products?  What’s the potential impact of a product’s life cycle, even after it’s been loved too much and too long? The process leads to us creating things with a purity of form based on raw function. Determining actual needs helps us eliminate excess material, which can reduce handling time and processing steps. Some of the production methods we use are more complex & require somewhat more advanced techniques, which wouldn’t be feasible if we were outfitting things with random primpery. Stripping waste from our products also benefits performance, in that using less makes lighter-weight & more stream-lined things that benefit purposeful intent. It forces you to make it better, almost mandates more integrity to the structure and finish. It's not enough to make something lighter, or even stronger and lighter, but it must also work better... if it doesn't work better, if there are lower-performing aspects of design, then it's wasting potential. In other words, if a lighter & stronger tent had a crummy entrance design that soaked the inside during storms, when an ounce or two of material & a bit more thought could create a storm-worthy entrance... it would be wasteful to carry the weight of the tent minus that extra material. If material is there, maximize the function of the material... if you’ve put 29 ounces into a rainfly that leaves parts exposed, but 31 ounces would provide total shelter, man, you’ve gotta take it the whole way.


I evaluate every aspect of Backcountry Bonsai to find and follow the most sustainable path. In a sense, any form of energy we can conserve in one area can either offset something less efficient, or “merely” help make up the difference of manufacturing small-batch goods here in the Great Lakes. To me, though, it’s more than a matter of efficiency… it’s also a matter of respect, for myself, the company, our neighbors, our customers… for everything and everyone we might touch. That probably sounds a little overboard, eh? But it comes down to a recognition that there isn’t waste, per se. There might well be a difference in utility or accessibility, but everything has some potential value. It reminds me of an almost Depression-era mindset… which then makes me think that given technological advances in the ensuing 80 years, we really oughta be further ahead than we are… but that’s a topic for another day.


Our tag line is “Get More For Your Ounce,” and the preceding is kind of what that phrase is all about. You can’t really maximize potential without minimizing waste, without making everything “count.” When it comes time to hit the trail you don’t want any wallflower ounces. Those things gotta work for the right to be on your back. A heavier pack requires more energy to carry, which requires more fuel (food), which makes the pack heavier… covering mileage becomes more difficult, there’s more risk for injury… but most importantly, it’s not as much fun. When you get out there it’s to re-create, in whatever way pleases you most. Make it less like work. Make it feel more like a dayhike. Allow yourself to appreciate and enjoy the rugged beauty you encounter. Hear the waves hitting shore, watch the sands shift, feel the earth respond to tree roots manipulated by wind in the canopy… Turn your energies toward letting your body and mind explore without distraction.