Sunday, 25 January 2009

"Waste not, want not"

I wish to take issue with whichever bright spark coined the phrase: ‘waste not, want not’. Whilst the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition may choose to define it more specifically as: “If we don’t waste what we have, we’ll still have it in the future and will not lack (want) it,” it is usually interpreted more widely i.e. that if you don’t waste things you won’t have need to want things.


In the over-developed world (my term for countries who can no longer manage their finances properly) the words ‘waste’ and ‘rubbish’ are close to becoming synonymous, since so much that we discard as rubbish actually is waste.

Visitors to “less developed” countries (is that the PC terminology these days?) like Nigeria will soon realise that a yawning gap that exists between ‘waste’ and ‘rubbish’. Whilst many visitors could be offended or concerned by the huge piles of rubbish which adorn the roadsides of many small towns and villages (imagine your street if you’d never had a rubbish collection service), I would challenge anyone to find any waste there. Why? Because if it was really ‘wasted’ someone else would have picked it up and used it. If it’s in that pile of rubbish it’s because its useful life is well and truly over.

The only things that I have seen consistently being wasted are grapefruits, time and lives. Let me get the grapefruits out of the way: Nigerians don’t like acidic citrus fruits like lemons and grapefruits – I believe it doesn’t agree with their digestion. These fruits grow on trees but you can’t buy them in the market. We noticed this one day when, having not even realised that grapefruits were on the local fruit list, we saw two big trees, their branches and the land around them aglow with bright yellow orbs. To cut a long story short, we now have a low-cost (well.... free) grapefruit supplier.

Everything else that can be eaten is eaten, if not by people, then by ubiquitous roaming farmyard animals, which themselves are then eaten. Every object that can be re-used is re-used. Not just once, but over and over again. Cars are one of the ultimate examples of cost-effective recycling (and see the earlier blog “The Crystal Palace and Cars” for the description of ‘belgian’ – to understand where Europe’s unwanted vehicles really go). Where Europe’s car manufacturers are struggling to economically dispose of vehicles according to the strictures of EU legislation, roadside mechanics around Nigeria (and probably Africa) are simply fixing cars with bits of other cars ad infinitum. The derelict cars littering every mechanic’s ‘forecourt’ is simply his spare parts department, and nothing will be discarded.

European packaging waste regulators should spend a little more time in African markets. Where virtually everything is (as I learnt today from an article on the ‘ethical living’ section of the Guardian’s website) ‘precycled’: excuse me whilst I quote from Tanis Taylor: “Recyling is good, but precycling - cutting out packaging in the first place and buying only what you need - is better.”
When we buy dried milk (or as we call it ‘milk’), we buy a ‘mudu’-worth (small bowl) that is extracted from a large sack into a very thin plastic bag (strangely known here as a ‘leather’), to be carefully (and not always successfully) transferred into an original dried milk tin when we get home. The same goes for rice, sugar, salt, beans, groundnuts - you get the point. Cooking oil is also, (and somewhat nervously in our case) poured from a large jerry can into a leather in the market and then decanted into an old whisky bottle (which we bought our groundnuts in – before you think we’re old soaks) if we manage to get it back to the Pink House intact. Our friend Sabine keeps her washing powder in plastic litre water bottles, and there’s no point showing up at a filling station without a jerry can for your kerosene or generator petrol.

The beauty is that ‘pre-cycling’ creates recycling opportunities for any form of packaging: our sugar is in an old Coffee Mate jar, peanuts are kept in (another) old whisky bottle and dried tomato pieces are in a Blue Band margarine tub. Our drinking water is boiled and filtered and stored in old water bottles out of which I have also made drinking cups (the base) and pouring funnels (the spout). Any other packaging we aren’t creative (or brave) enough to use is put aside for Victoria (our, ahem, maid) who I saw leaving today clutching two naked tuna cans from last night’s dinner.

The problem of consumer waste is an affliction of the rich: you can’t waste what is in scarce supply – whether it be packaging, water, electricity or indeed money (hence not wasting money on packaging...). It’s how we survive (happily) on less than £5 per day, something I’m sure that anyone who has lived during a war will recognise. Everything is needed. This point comes home to us brutally in our back yard most evenings. In the time between throwing our trash into its pit and burning it, the local children will come scampering over to pick through (and sometimes eat) what we thought was rubbish, but to them is sometimes just waste. Colourful plastic wrappers of dried drink powder, empty blister packs of malaria pills, and other, to them unidentifiable, sanitary objects.

However I don’t believe that abject poverty is the only reason that our neighbour’s children do this: sometimes I think it’s like an Easter Egg hunt or that our back yard is some sort of children’s discovery park. These kids are bored rigid. They can waste time. Hours of it. Going through a batuari’s rubbish is one way to fill the day, as is playing stick ball or simply hanging out in our back yard staring at batauri as we rest in our deckchairs in the cool evening breeze.
So back to my objection: this adage should be (somewhat less catchily, it’s true) “Want: waste not”.

It did also occur to me that this saying had been lost in translation over the years and was actually ‘Waste not, wont not’, ‘wont’ being “an established custom”. That could make sense: to quote Plato: ‘scarcity is the mother of invention’, which could suggest that scarcity drives creativity and innovation and therefore prevents the adoption of regular habits. Which is correct? According to Google, ‘want’ wins by a slim margin - 260,000 hits for “waste not, want not”, against 259,000 for “waste not, wont not”. You decide!

I don’t suppose that Leonard Cohen visited Nigeria however perhaps Nigerians took his words to heart, when realising that there is value in just about everything:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Thanks to Linda Jones of SEEP for my Leonard Cohen Education

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Afternoon Cecil!
A very eye-opening blog indeed. The next time I empty my rubbish (or pre-cycling) I am going to give serious thought to what I am throwing away. That's nto to say I am going to send my waste to Nigeria but I will think about what goes in the bin.
Lovely day here in London. Just ran into Jodie Kidd at St Pancras....she is lovely!
Much love.
Jared xx