Thursday 21 April 2011

Waste not, Want not

Traditionally the saying I have used as a title is understood to mean 'don't waste the things that you don't want', but I quite like the alternative interpretation of 'If you don't waste anything you are never going to want for anything'. It quite neatly summarises how I am going to conclude this post, but I am getting ahead of myself. However, I am going to start at the end.

The end of the line for most 'waste', is as methane gas or as toxic landfill leachate, waiting to escape and pollute our atmosphere and groundwater. Modern landfills try very hard to stop these pollutants escaping, but nothings perfect and accidents happen.

I'm sure you have noticed that landfill sites take up quite a lot of room and when Britons alone produce 35.1 million tonnes of waste a year it is hardly surprising. However, this is starting to cause a problem as we need land for other important purposes, such as growing our food, so it is getting harder and harder to find places to put new landfill sites. In fact it is estimated that we will run out of landfill space in Britain in less than eight years time. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that landfill sites are difficult to redevelop due to toxic emissions and the risk from subsidence. And we must not forget the energy used to transport our waste to landfill sites either.

Now quite a lot of the stuff that we put into landfill is actually quite useful; so many perfectly usable appliances are thrown away it's ridiculous and considering the general finite nature of our natural resources and the looming peak oil problems, reusing some of the materials might be a smart plan.

That's recycling I hear you say. And indeed it is! Recycling takes used materials and makes them into new products like super cool computer circuit board stationary or the drinks mat I once had that was made out of toothbrushes...

Unfortunately though recycling is not magic, it requires large amounts of energy to reform the materials and therefore isn't the perfect answer. So climbing slowly up the well-known mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle we come to Reuse. Why change something if it still works perfectly well as it is? You can either use it again yourself, as in making your own jam to put in reused jam jars, or you can pass it on to someone else who can reuse it. This could be a friend or neighbour or failing that Freegle is a fantastic way of finding a happy home for all your unwanteds. Just giving things away for reuse is only half the story though, it is important to remember that these things need to be actually bought (or collected for free) to be able to be reused. There are many places where you can do this - clothes swaps, bring and take days (like Sustainable Bungay's), charity shops, freegle again, car boot sales, I could go on.

Somewhere around this section there is also the idea of repurposing, such as the flower pot kettle suggestion of J. Bloggs. This is sometimes referred to as upcycling and lots of wonderful suggestions can be found on the web on sites like instructables.

The astute amongst you probably noticed that there is one step better still -Reduce. If you don't produce the waste in the first place then you don't have to work out what to do with it. This is the point where you start to get a lot of cross over with discussions about stuff and food, because reducing waste normally requires changing the way you view the things you consume. You need to start see things as valuable resources that have had a lot of effort put into them by the earth and mankind and therefore you use them as carefully as possible and don't buy new things like they are going out of fashion (even our sayings have got the wrong idea!).

This generally means buying less (saving you money too) and using what you do buy more carefully. Making stuff yourself is also a good plan.

Just the word and concept of waste is a big part of the problem. Nothing is inherently valueless and everything can be reincarnated in some form or another. Nature doesn't have waste, or if it does it is more of an opportunity of a new resource to find a use for, rather than a problem to be hidden away.

Producing less waste is actually good for you too! If you really appreciate the things you have, look after them and make some things yourself then you will be happier and more content than if you are constantly searching for satisfaction in endless products. And as I said at the beginning if you waste less then you are less likely to find yourself (personally and as a society) in need of something that you cannot have.

Photos: waste not want not poster, landfill site, circuit board notebook and tetrapak wallet.

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