What does waste not, want not mean today?

When I was a little girl, I didn’t understand that expression – waste not, want not. I guess the concept of waste hadn’t really been explained to me and I had never wanted for anything. I knew that some people were worse off, I’d seen them, but I didn’t think that was anything to do with me. I had never questioned why they had less. It wasn’t until I was older, had studied a degree in International Relations and became actively interested in social and environmental policy that I started to realise just how much our actions can affect others. ‘Waste not, want not’ is something I now think about almost constantly.  I see the waste, and excessive consumerism which surrounds us, and which is inescapable in our everyday lives, as a foreshadowing of our planet as the desolate Wall-E rubbish pile. We’ve been taught to believe that more things equal a better economy and higher status, however all more things produce for sure, is a slowly decaying Earth. I don’t think it has to be this way.

I think the main reason this has happened is that we have grown up hooked on advertising and consumerism. We are so used to being told what to buy, when to feel hungry, how to look, how to act, that we no longer question it. All we do is continue to buy. Our society has actually shifted to a point where we value things above all else. Don’t have the latest iPhone, the nicest car, the newest Nikes? Who even are you? Status is now integrally linked to the things you have, rather than the person you are.

All of this has a huge toll on us and on the planet. More factories to produce our beloved things means more pollution. Making more beloved things (especially those made of plastic) means more oil and mining. And where do these things go? Once we chuck something in the bin – whether it’s a plastic bag, a battery, or a piece of unloved clothing, we stop thinking about it, but that doesn’t mean it stops existing. Tonnes of waste is produced by every country, every year, and it goes to landfill, or ends up in our water. The toxins which leak out of batteries, phones and laptops don’t stop there. The plastic that ends up in our oceans kills marine life, destroys our beaches and poisons us. Food waste comes hand in hand with this, but for the sake of this argument, I’m going to stick with things.

And I could go on and on about our consumerist ‘throwaway’ society. How we now place the value of convenience above that of sustaining and protecting our own home. But you only need to look outside to see the damage – litter everywhere, a huge change in climate, and structural inequality which is further brought about by the big businesses which control our lives. There is decay everywhere and the people on top keep getting richer while we suffer.

So, what can we do?

Making fewer things is better for everyone – industry can continue without us having to buy a new phone every year. Our capitalist doctrine tells us that companies are good – they make money, they provide jobs, the economy grows. However, when I look around the world today I don’t see any evidence of that. I see the rich growing richer at our expense, and at our planet’s expense. Small companies may be good – they directly improve the local economy with employment, a sense of growth and pride, and direct income to people in the community. But big multi nationals? They offshore everything to save themselves money (meaning the local community don’t get those jobs that they were promised), they increase their prices across the board, they cut costs wherever they can (meaning crappier products for us), and they often price local competitors out of the market. And it’s these companies that we are supporting every time we buy a new Apple product, or designer clothes, or cheap furniture. Which we buy – in hoards. And then chuck away when a newer version comes out.

I’m not saying technology is bad, nor that we shouldn’t have the quality of life that we have today, but somewhere along the way we really messed up. Big business runs everything – and advertising is unavoidable, so people continue to buy more and want more. And what’s worse, is how many people are in need when every day, we throw things away without a second thought.

We are wasting, and we are wanting.

But there are solutions. For every person who says that they don’t want to use re-usable bags and cycle to work when the big businesses are still polluting left, right, and centre, I say, big business needs us. You can start by buying local, directing your own money away from big business – and supporting your own economy. At least there you will have a voice. A small, local business is so much more likely to listen to its customers than a huge multi-national. Being an active member of your local community has so many more benefits than just the environment.

Step away from single use anything. Plastic bags, coffee cups, takeaway containers. Unless it can be reused, or recycled, steer clear of it. Don’t put convenience above the fate of the planet. If it means you don’t have a coffee one morning because you forgot your reusable cup at home, it’s not the end of the world. Continuing to discard plastic and dispose of waste the way we currently do, will be.

Buy to last. My aunt tells me that she can’t afford to buy cheap things and I’ve never heard a truer saying. We don’t need a wardrobe which is bursting at the seams, or 10 pairs of shoes, or a laptop and an iPad AND an iPhone – we need fewer, better quality products. Make do with less and when you do buy something new – invest in something which will last you a long time.  If we all started buying good quality products, we wouldn’t have to buy new each and every time. This is not what big business wants from us. They sell us sub-par products, which are built to break, because the quicker a product breaks down, the sooner they can get more of your money for a new one. If the table you buy is a solid wood product made by a local carpenter, it can be resold when you no longer need or want it. That chipboard Ikea table? It will go on the rubbish heap. The same goes for clothes, crockery, accessories. In Sydney, where I live, there are so many car boot sales, and clothes swaps, people use the internet to Buy, Swap and Sell second hand items. This is great start but we need more it. If you can’t find one nearby, then suggest it to your friends, or people in your wider community. You would be amazed what you can find and who you might meet.

We are killing our planet. Whichever way you look at it, we are destroying the most beautiful gift we have been given – life on planet Earth. We started off with a planet which could provide for all of our needs. We had enough food, water, shelter and space. Now we are poisoning our oceans, our people, our food, our water. The Earth can only be so resilient – 8 billion people to feed is a lot and we’re not helping in the least bit. So help it! No one’s asking you to be an eco-warrior. Just to really think about your carbon footprint and what small, sustainable changes you can make in your life and promote within your community to reduce waste.


Related reading: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Related viewing: ABC’s War on Waste

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth & An Inconvenient Sequel

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