I’ve signed up to Zero Waste Week. This event is in its seventh year. It runs from 1 to 7 September and encourages people to “reduce landfill waste and save money”.
As readers of this blog know, I advocate waste avoidance and many of my posts hint at old school thriftiness. In many ways every week is Zero Waste Week to me but I particularly like this year’s theme: “One more thing”. It’s a practical, encouraging angle for the challenge, applying equally to those starting out on a ‘lighter’ life as those with established ‘waste-light’ practices. The question “what one more thing could you do?” prompts us to be creative and share inspiration, something I definitely support. Plus, signing up to Zero Waste Week gives me an opportunity to talk about waste from another, arguably more productive, angle.
My relationship with ‘waste’ is long and involved.
I grew up in a tiny country, which due to its size was quick off the mark with waste mitigation policies, and the rules in my municipality were particularly draconian: recycling policies were strictly enforced and waste was collected sufficiently infrequently to focus minds on waste minimisation. And then there was the quarterly ‘totting fest’.
As a young child I watched a strange quarterly ritual that saw householders leave big items of waste on the curb for the council to collect the next morning. On those evenings neighbours would pick over each others’ waste, taking what they could use, modify or fix home. You would see people carrying chairs, cases, lamps… Some would even drive around the neighbourhood and tie old armchairs or kitchen cabinets to their roof racks. Within a couple of hours the streets were picked bare, with only scraps left for the council to collect. There was no shame in the practice. The council actively encouraged it. And from a young age I saw real recycling in action: one person’s waste as another’s resource.
This philosophy resonated with what I was learning at home. My parents grew up during wartime Britain and the long austerity years that followed and as such had no concept of waste. Everything was used up or reinvented. And it was an attitude that stayed with them.
Food scraps that could not be turned into another meal fed the compost heap. Cartons, toilet paper holders, plastic bottles… went into the Blue Peter bag as materials for our craft projects. We used scrap wallpaper to cover our school books. Dad used off-cuts of wood from DIY jobs to make toys for us, e.g. a doll’s house for me, a railway set for my brother, a Wendy house for the twins, a theatre for all four of us…
Through adult eyes
My view that waste is mostly an unused resource has been reinforced by many things. Gardening for one. There is little waste in nature. What may appear as such at first glance is often just a resource for other organisms. Plants shed hundreds of seeds. Some go towards next year’s growth, most are food for other wildlife. Trees lose their leaves in autumn but these provide habitat for creatures and break down to improve soil structure. Once you start to garden, you discover a fascinating system of resource and nutrient cycling!
As someone interested in social history, I love learning how previous generations met everyday needs using all resources available to them, even what we would classify as waste. Food waste was virtually unheard of for centuries as most people struggled to get enough nutrients. Any leftovers from wealthy tables were either collected to be sold to the poorer, given away as part of one’s charitable duty or fed to the pigs. Pretty much everything else would be reused in one form or another. Wood ash was a valuable source of lye for making soap or potash, a useful plant feed. The rag and bone men really bought rags and bones as these could be sold on to be turned into recycled fabric and fertiliser. Wood shavings were useful kindling wood. The list goes on. Even urine was a valuable resource!
Of course consumption levels in Western societies have spun long-established cycles off course. We live in an age when we prefer to extract resources and run industrial process to produce unnecessary or disposable products rather than produce things that last, make things ourselves or fix essential items. And a new industry has developed to deal with previously unimaginable waste.
In my legal years I gained a fascinating insight into the waste industry when I advised on the development of a couple of waste incinerators, which these days masquerade under the term “Energy from Waste” plants. I never set out to work in this sphere and as a committed waste avoider, I felt a fraud advising clients who relied on abundant municipal waste. The projects however provided valuable insights into the workings and limitations of the waste management industry.
Waste conscious or resource minded?
Now I’m certainly not advocating going back to the hunger, cold (heaven forbid!) and lack of health and comfort that most people experienced even a hundred years ago. I do, however, know from my own housekeeping efforts that there is a limit to how much waste we can avoid as consumers. The best way to kick our waste avoidance practices into another gear is to see ourselves as producers and focus on resources, both in terms of what we let into our lives in the first place and in terms of any waste we create along the way. This type of proactive resource management is more empowering and a lot more fun than merely avoiding unnecessary stuff that we never actually asked for. Crucially, it also reminds us that waste is not inevitable!
So yes, I have signed up to Zero Waste Week and I’ll be using the week to refine my domestic resource management further, but mostly to highlight the abundance at my fingertips.
* The Blue Peter ship is taken from the Radio Times website.
A naughty challenge
If you already refuse plastic bags at the check-out, consider taking it a step further. I have been known to take wrapping off clothes and stationery items at the cash register and leave it there. I do it with good grace and explain to shop assistants why. I also use the free return labels on deliveries to send back excess packaging with an explanatory note. Yes, it diverts waste from my bin but more importantly, if we systematically make disposing of unnecessary packaging the retailers’ problem, more specifically a cost for them, they may get the message and demand a different approach from their suppliers.