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Waste Not, Want Not

January 12, 2020

Yesterday, I threw away a t-shirt, a bra, three pairs of socks, and one of my husband’s sweatshirts. The t-shirt was at least ten years old, faded and ‘warped’ at the neckline. The elastic on the bra was stretched past its usefulness. The socks all had holes in the heels. My husband’s sweatshirt had dozens of ‘pinholes’ in it (he refuses to wear a welding apron when he’s out in the shop) as well as a sagging iron-on patch on the front where I’d attempted to cover a larger hole created by some other garage task ‘accident’ two years ago. I agonized over tossing every one of those items into the trash.

My husband and I were both raised in homes, and during times, when you didn’t throw things out (clothes or pretty much any household item) unless they were beyond repair. If you outgrew an article of clothing, or found yourself in possession of some item you no longer had use for, you passed it along to someone else. Old sheets and towels were turned into rags; newspapers lined bird or rabbit cages or were used to wrap ‘wet’ kitchen garbage; boxes and bags were folded flat and tucked away to be pulled out when something needed to be boxed or wrapped in the future.

1950sShopping

Shopping in the 1950s and 60s

If a small (or even large) appliance stopped working, you took it into a repair shop or called in a ‘repairman’ to fix it. If you needed new furniture or appliances, you started at the second hand store, then moved on to searching for ‘quality’ items at the furniture or department store – things that would last for years and years before having to be disposed of (my parents had a refrigerator from the 1960s that went from the house I grew up in to the garage of their retirement home [where it was relegated to being the ‘beer fridge’]; it stopped working around 1995 – some 30+ years after it was first purchased). When it came to groceries, we made careful lists, shopped prudently, and bought only what we could consume in a week. On the rare occasion when we had ‘leftovers’ (after Christmas, Thanksgiving, or an evening with company), we’d enjoy an eclectic meal known affectionately as ‘COTF’ (clean out the fridge) night. Nothing went to waste.

We ‘made do’ with what we had, fixed what was broken (sometimes several times), and expected our possessions to last a very long time (refrigerators and stoves, televisions and radios, furniture and cars had anticipated life spans of at least ten to fifteen years). ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ wasn’t a catch-phase in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, it was a way of life.

 

SearsSaleAd2015

Special sales, like “Black Friday” encourage people to buy things they don’t really need

So what’s happened to our world? In the past fifty years, the growth of consumerism, driven by capitalism, commercialization and over-consumption, has turned things on their head. We purchase way more than we can consume; we consume a small percentage of what is produced; we produce significantly more goods than we could ever need, toss out the excess and make more; goods are manufactured to break down or wear out shortly after their warranties have expired (even clothing has ‘planned obsolesce’ built in these days). Every year brings new makes and models of everything from cars to vacuum cleaners, TVs to telephones, which we’re encouraged to buy whether the old ones are ‘worn out’ or not. Fashion and furniture trends change with the seasons. Everyone wants the ‘latest, greatest’ of everything. Special sales are heralded as a time to buy, buy, buy (this year Amazon claimed Black Friday as their biggest sales day EVER). So, its ‘in with the new and out with the old’. As a result, we’re burying ourselves in garbage – an alarming amount of which is items that have barely been used and food that will never be consumed. We produce so much waste that we’re choking the planet with it (on land and even in the oceans).

3RsWe might claim to believe in the ‘Three Rs’ but most of us either don’t practice them, or don’t do it very well (and the recycling facilities aren’t recycling most of what we put into our blue boxes, anyway; in Canada only about 10% actually gets recycled, the rest is either shipped overseas or ends up in a landfill).

Businesses thrive on producing more goods than can be consumed and encouraging us to buy, buy, buy (whether we need what they’re selling or not).  Many stores (especially the large grocery chains) berate staff for letting ANY item ‘sell out’; shelves must continually be restocked to avoid empty spaces. They also ‘rotate out’ (i.e., toss) any dairy item (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.) that is within three days of the ‘best before’ date, followed by produce that is still ‘in its prime’. In the big box, department and drug stores, non-food items that fail to attract a buyer even after being marked down end up in the compactor (most stores have multiple compactors right next to the loading docks); this includes all sorts of goods like shoes, children’s car seats, strollers, luggage, household goods, and even electronics. (NOTE: my sources here include members of my family who’ve worked in grocery store chains, department stores, and a major drugstore chain.)

Clothing stores often ‘slash and trash’ items that don’t sell (only this week a woman found multiple clear plastic bags behind a Carter’s OshKosh B’gosh store at Toronto’s Dufferin Mall, filled with brand new slashed children’s clothin. This is not a new phenomenon; for years, many high-end clothing stores have followed this practice, despite being encouraged to remove tags and donate the items to charities. Heaven forbid ‘needy’ families should be wearing designer togs that didn’t sell at outrageous prices in the first place).

InsideBigBoxStoreWalk into any grocery store, drugstore, ‘big box’ store, clothing store – just about ANY store – and ask yourself how much of what you see displayed can possibly be sold (even without regular restocking). My guess? Fifty percent, MAX. The rest will inevitably end up at one of two places: a liquidator or a landfill (and what doesn’t sell at a liquidator goes to landfill eventually).

Here are just a few statistics (w/links to resources) that totally blow me away (I suggest taking a deep breath or two before reading!)

Garbage in General:

A recent study states that Canadians produce more garbage per capita than any other country on earth – approximately 31 million tonnes* a year. Only about 30% of that goes into blue box programs (and we know not all of that gets recycled). Each Canadian generates approximately 2.7 kg (5.94 lbs) of garbage every day.

LandfillCanada currently has over 10,000 landfill sites. The decomposition of organic waste in landfills produces a gas which is composed primarily of methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its potential impact to climate change. Emissions from Canadian landfills account for 20% of national methane emissions and estimates illustrate that approximately 27 Megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (eCO2) are generated annually from Canadian landfills.

*1 metric tonne = 1.1 imperial tons

GroceryStoreFoodWasteFood:

A whopping 58% of all food produced in Canada (35.5 million tonnes) is lost or wastedannually; about a third of that could be ‘rescued’ and sent to communities in need across the country. Some 4.82 million tonnes is lost or wasted during the processing and manufacturing process; 2.38 million tonnes, is lost at the consumer level. Reports show that approximately $31 billion worth of food is ‘wasted’ at the grocery store level. In total, the value of all food that is lost or wasted in Canada is a staggering $49 billion; the annual cost of avoidable food loss and waste in Canada is $1,766 per household.

TextileWasteFacts

Clothing:

In Canada, each household throws away 46kg (101 pounds) of clothing per year. Around 8-12% of municipal landfills are made up of textiles.

Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled (to more than 100 billion items produced globally each year). The average consumer buys 60 percent more clothing than they did 15 years ago, yet each clothing item is now kept only half as long.

 

Durable Goods:** (U.S. Statistics; I couldn’t find Canadian numbers)

As of 2017, durable goods represented 57.1 million tons of solid waste (21.4% of total municipal solid waste generation):

  • 10.8 million tons were recycled (18.9% recycling rate)
  • 9.1 million tons were combusted (26.7% of total combustion with recovery)
  • 37.2 million tons ended up in landfills (26.7% of total landfilling)

DurableGoodsDisposal

**NOTE: durable goods include large and small appliances, furniture and furnishings, carpets and rugs, rubber tires, lead-acid automotive batteries, consumer electronics, and other miscellaneous goods such as luggage, sporting goods and household goods.

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So, you might ask, what can I do about all this? Well, that’s really up to you, I suppose. You can certainly think a little more carefully about what you’re buying the next time you go shopping for clothes or household items (ask yourself if you really NEED the item, or just ‘want’ it; how many times you’ll use/wear it; how long you’re likely to keep it; how you’ll dispose of it when it’s served its purpose).

When you head off to the grocery store, you might want to take a list and stick to it, buy only what you can eat in a week (assuming you shop once a week), and avoid those ‘middle-of-the-week’ extra trips to ‘just pick up a couple of things’ that always end up with you arriving home with two bags of groceries you didn’t really need. Take reusable bags or containers with you; shop in bulk food stores when you can; keep an eye on ‘best before’ dates and shop accordingly (NOTE: many items, like yogurt and juice, are still edible for days beyond that ‘magic’ date on the label!) You can also just eat what’s in your fridge and cupboards instead of buying more.

You can review and improve your recycling habits: donate good used clothing to places like Value Village, the Salvation Army, or other charities or thrift stores; clean, sort and put all recyclable plastics, paper and cardboard in your blue box for pick up; take advantage of the green bin (composting) programs in your area (or, if you’re in an area that doesn’t have a green bin program, or a rural area like me, invest in a composter and create your own organic garden material). Know what is recyclable and what isn’t and use refillable containers wherever possible. Practice ‘clean’ recycling (don’t contaminate other recyclables by refusing to wash containers out, or by putting non-recyclable materials in your blue box).

You can make yourself (more) aware of the problems we face with respect to our wasteful habits, share your concerns with others (including your local politicians), and aim to cut your waste as much as possible. Even the smallest of steps – if we ALL take them – can add up to big changes.

I don’t know about you, but I want to leave this planet in a much better state than it is now, for my children and their children, and any generations yet to come. I hope you do too. So how about it? Will you join me in making our planet a less wasteful place here on … the other side of 55?

 

12 Comments
  1. January 13, 2020 3:09 pm

    I hear you! We are the same here in the U.S. if not worse than you all. My husband and I were just talking about this the other day and how it makes us sick to think of all the waste. We both grew up in households like you – waste not, want not. We try our best to reduce, reuse, recycle, but I don’t think many people do. And of course, trying to find someone who can fix any item that stops working, whether it be a small or large appliance for electronics, is darn near impossible.

    • January 13, 2020 4:05 pm

      I remember when there were 2 or 3 “repair shops” on the main street of the town I grew up in. I bet there aren’t ANY there anymore. And most things simply can’t be fixed, meaning you have to toss them in the trash. So wasteful.

  2. January 12, 2020 7:03 pm

    I rarely buy anything new. Even clothes! Our fridge and stove are 20 years old and work just fine for me. I had no idea about the slash and trash at clothing stores! Unbelievable.

    • January 13, 2020 7:36 am

      Good to hear from you Granny K. Yes, the idea that brand new clothing is ruined just so no one can buy it (or “steal” it, I suppose) is sickening. I feel the same about grocery stores tossing out perfectly good food that could go to food banks, etc. We are a terribly, terribly wasteful society. I think government should limit how much “overstock” stores can stock (15% maybe?) so this doesn’t keep happening. In the ‘olden days’ it wasn’t unusual to get to the store and find items ‘out of stock’. You rarely see that now (unless its a ‘deal’ designed strictly to get people in the door of a store).

  3. January 12, 2020 5:44 pm

    I remember the days before paper towels and my mom used to tell me about the days before toilet paper! My grandpa still used handkerchiefs instead of tissue when I was a kid. We didn’t need trash pick-up because we didn’t generate much and what we did was incinerated once a week in the back yard. Meat was wrapped in paper at the corner grocery store; canned goods came from glass jars in the cellar (laboriously canned in the summer); milk was delivered in glass bottles; we visited the egg lady every couple of weeks where we returned the cartons from the previous week; produce came from the fruit stand in the summer and from the aforementioned glass jars in the winter. I knew people who had stacks of aluminum TV dinner trays, carefully washed and stored for future use.
    But now I find piles of household rubbish dumped anywhere and everywhere I hike and mountain bike. I try to imagine what kind of person does this. It’s impossible to fathom.

    • January 12, 2020 6:45 pm

      The house I grew up in (during the 60s) actually had an incinerator in the basement; I’d forgotten about that! We also had milk delivery (in bottles), bread delivery (in paper bags), and groceries were packed in paper bags. I live in the country and am appalled at the amount of trash tossed along the side of the road. I spend one day every spring going up and down our street (its 1.25 km long with corn fields at one end, forests in the middle, and 5 residence properties at the other end) picking it all up; I generally get a half a trash bag full. Where on earth do these people think their garbage does when they throw it out the window?!?!?!? It’s sickening!

  4. January 12, 2020 4:55 pm

    Great post, I like the comparison with how we used to live and how consumerism has gone out of hand. I think a lot of people can learn a good deal from this post. Keep up the great work!

    • January 12, 2020 5:41 pm

      Thank you. It means a lot to know I’ve reached people like yourself!

  5. January 12, 2020 3:09 pm

    Very informative post, thank you for sharing. A little bit of consciousness goes a long way

    • January 12, 2020 4:02 pm

      It’s surprising how many people don’t even think about where their “trash” ends up. We all need to be more aware.

  6. tracy east permalink
    January 12, 2020 2:38 pm

    This is an subject that I am really good at. I only buy new items if the old one dies and not just because I want a new one, and also try to get it from a garage sale if possible. I still cut up old shirts, towels and sheets to use for rags.I shop the sale flyers for groceries and plan my meals around the sale items. Roger takes leftovers for lunch at work.This week we only did a small shop because we are eating anything we have in the pantry, fridge and freezer and there will be some odd combinations of meals. I still have a pot I use everyday that was my mother in laws, also some that were my Nana’s. I would say that 90% of my clothing is thrifted and done with a coupon or discount. I still think I can improve but feel I am doing my best!

    • January 12, 2020 3:07 pm

      You and I are a lot alike Tracy (no real surprise there!) I love thrift shops and liquidators; I always feel like I’m saving the items I buy from ‘death’. The hardest thing I had to do when we moved was decide what to keep and what to get rid of. We made multiple trips to the SPCA Thrift Store and Value Village with donations and I put a ton of furniture and other items at the end of the driveway with ‘free’ signs on them (most of it went within a day or two). I cringed every time we put something into the dumpster (when we had no other choice). I’m proud of the fact that we put out only a single bag of garbage every couple of weeks (and most of that, unfortunately, is non-recyclable packaging). I think we could ALL do a little better, but at least some of us are really trying!

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