Waste Not, Want Not

Waste not, want not.

My mother used to say that phrase a lot when we were a young family of five living on a teacher’s salary. (She also used to say “Water on wood, uh-uh, no good,” but that’s a different post.) My husband grew up in a teacher’s household, too. For both of our families, this meant doing a good bit with not so much. Neither of us grew up poor, and we certainly didn’t live like our grandparents had in the Depression days. But we were from frugal roots, and that mentality has stuck with us into adulthood.

Because we married later in life, and lived at home well into our 30s, DH and I started our life together in a much stronger financial position than our parents had. But the mantra is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that, even though we can afford to buy certain things, we only do so if we truly need it and the finances make sense. We both abhor waste.

There is all kinds of waste in the American life. The most obvious is the physical garbage that goes out to the curb each week. We Westerners throw things away without much of a second thought. In our house, we make a conscious effort to reduce, reuse and recycle, in that order. I try hard to buy only what we need and, when there is a choice, to buy it in a package that is easily recycled. For instance, when choosing orange juice last week, I noticed my favorite brand is in a new, larger bottle that is #7 plastic (unrecyclable in our community). The price was only slightly less than buying a different, equally good brand that comes in a #2 plastic jug. I bought the other brand, because I can recycle that container. And I also sent a note to my favorite brand’s manufacturer, telling them just why I didn’t purchase theirs.

When our garbage can goes out to the curb, I always wince at the thought of what’s going to happen to the contents. As I glance up and down our street on Tuesday evenings, my stomach turns a little because every other house has a similar mini-dumpster parked and waiting for pickup the next morning. Most houses have multiple cans. What could those people be throwing away? I can’t imagine what they could be coming up with, week after week, to fill up those cans. I feel like we throw tons away, and yet, we always have far less garbage than any of our neighbors. In fact, we sometimes even skip a week because there’s hardly anything in our can (and, honestly, because we forget to take it out!) Our neighbors must be swimming in garbage. Are they just not recycling?

Maybe the whole waste thing has something to do with the way Americans eat. We are a processed-food nation, and I have noticed that the bulk of our home’s garbage is generated in the kitchen. It is much harder to buy something that’s not in a box or wrapper than otherwise. We aim for foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Processed foods for us are usually things like flour, sugar and coffee. We still have packaging to throw away, but it’s one wrapper for several meals, not the other way around. The rest of the packaging can often go in the compost pile.

That brings up another point: maybe our neighbors are really just throwing away a whole lot of good apple peels, orange rinds and coffee grounds. I wish they’d dump them in our compost pile instead. We could really use some more organic green matter to offset all the leaves. Talk about one person’s trash being another’s treasure.

Waste is more than garbage, of course. Insidious waste is everywhere, particularly in energy usage. Turning off unused lights is a good start. But did you know that the bulk of your energy bill likely goes to powering electronics and other items when they are turned off? Things that stay plugged in, like your TV and stereo, and yes, your computer, suck almost as much energy when they’re in “standby” as when they’re running. Get a switchable power strip and turn the strip off when you’re not listening to the stereo. Or unplug your stuff.

The other thing that I’ve really been focused on lately is the sheer quantity of things in our life. Whether I’m buying organic food that’s grown “sustainably”, or using a low-odor paint, or running around the house unplugging things, the fact remains that we use and consume a lot of stuff. How much shopping do you do in a week for things other than grocery? What do you buy? How much of it do you really need? I bet, if you opened a bathroom cupboard or linen closet, there would be volumes of cosmetics, toiletries, knicknacks, containers, decorations, cleaners and other items that you never use. I just cleaned out my hallway closet and now have a box of no less than twenty bottles of cosmetic lotions accumulated over the years. Some of them were gifts, some were purchased for one reason or another, but they are all waste since I don’t want them. Of course, I can’t bring myself to throw them away because they’re still “good”. Waste not, want not, right?

All of this stuff in my house is not doing me any good, however. In fact, much of it is doing me harm. I’m overwhelmed by it: spending my time cleaning it, cleaning around it, figuring out where to put it so it won’t be in my way, or worrying about what to do with it to get it out of the house responsibly. I long ago came to the realization that less is more. The recent corollary to that is that more is definitely less.

Maybe the other corollary should be want not, waste not. Because much of what we want, beyond necessary food and shelter, is waste. Wasteful waste, that generates even more waste.

What a waste.

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