I grew up in a home where nothing was wasted. My mum never threw food away unless it was completely inedible. After boiling vegetables, she saved the water and used it as stock in soups and sauces. Christmas cards were cut up into tags for next year’s presents. Old towels and sheets became rags for cleaning. Ice cream and margarine tubs were rinsed and used instead of Tupperware boxes. My dad kept old bedsteads, scrap metal, pipes, shelves and various other things that most people would regard as junk. Whenever something needed mending, chances were he’d have something lying around that would do the trick.
From a young age, I had it drummed into me not to leave the lights on or the taps running if I wasn’t using them. Many of these habits partially stemmed from the need to save money – we never had very much of it. Perhaps it was also because my parents grew up in the sixties and seventies, when attitudes were different.
When I left for university and began sharing a house with other students, I was amazed by their wastefulness. They bought more food than they could possibly eat, and tossed it in the bin when it inevitably went bad. Leftovers were left mouldering away in the pan for days. Nobody made any attempt to use the food waste bin, and they often didn’t recycle packaging. I couldn’t stand to see the bin full of recyclable plastic, tins and glass, so I picked it out, rinsed it, and recycled it, grumbling under my breath the whole time. Sometimes they threw away perfectly edible food if they didn’t feel like eating it. If it was still in the packaging, my boyfriend and I sometimes fished it out and claimed it. He once described it as ‘domestic skipping’ (or ‘domestic Dumpster diving’, for those of you in the US)! Food waste is a huge issue in the developed world – click here for some shocking statistics about food waste in the UK.
It wasn’t just food my housemates wasted – they left the TV on with no-one watching it, and left lights on when they went out. One person often drove to a local shop that was less than a five-minute walk away. It really frustrated me – it was so simple to recycle packaging or flick a light switch, and I couldn’t understand why they were so apathetic. Every time I threw away packaging, I imagined it sitting in landfill for decades, or getting into rivers and oceans, where it would hurt wildlife and wash up on beaches.
It’s easier to understand these wasteful behaviours when we look at our consumerist culture. Disposable products are everywhere, convenient and widely accepted as the norm – nappies, sanitary towels and tampons, carrier bags, razors, paper towels, wipes, batteries, scourers, lighters, ballpoint pens, plastic cutlery, toothbrushes and coffee cups, not to mention the coffee machine pods which the creator infamously declared he regrets inventing. And that’s just scratching the surface – the more we look around, the more we can see the sheer number of disposable and single use products we unthinkingly use every day.
Then there’s planned obsolescence, where products are made to break after a limited period of use. Typically, they’re designed so they can’t be easily repaired. Most people therefore buy a new one and throw away the broken one, generating profit for the corporations concerned. Planned obsolescence also exists in the form of products which quickly become outdated or unfashionable, influencing people to replace them even if they’re still fully functional. Many people always want the latest iPhone, for instance, or fear being judged for having an older version. As long as this level of waste is profitable for big business, it’s likely to continue.
A change in our mindset is long overdue. We can’t carry on this way forever – digging up our planet’s resources, making disposable products and dumping them in holes in the ground when we’re done with them. It’s pretty obvious that this is an unsustainable and irresponsible system, with serious repercussions for future generations. Although it’s currently very difficult to live in a way that doesn’t harm the planet, we can all make simple changes to our lifestyles to limit waste. However, change may be needed at a systemic level if we’re to make meaningful progress. For example, the 5p charge introduced for carrier bags in the UK led to a huge decline in their use.
I hope I don’t sound judgemental, as that wasn’t my intention. I’m a long way from perfect when it comes to waste – for example, I buy food wrapped in unrecyclable plastic film and use some disposable products. I have a friend who lives a zero-waste lifestyle (watch one of her videos on the subject to learn more), and though I greatly admire her, I still make excuses for not doing it myself.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you think we should all aim to be zero-waste? What could be done to combat our disposable culture? I’d love to hear from you!