Lately, with the worries over climate change and the mounting trash that has polluted the planet, and the things we are at risk of running out of — water, natural resources that we mine for the things for which we’ve created vast need — I’ve been thinking a lot about how much we waste.
Like many women of her generation, my paternal grandmother (born in 1879) had a saying for every occasion. Growing up in her house, I heard them all. The truth of a moralizing cliche does little to persuade a child that it ought to be heeded. “A fool and his money are soon parted.” (What money? I didn’t have any!) I don’t remember being given a regular allowance. To get an allowance, you had to earn it by fulfilling your assigned duties —- washing the dishes, dusting, tidying your room. While it would have been prudent to start saving —- “A penny saved is a penny earned ” — it was more fun to spend your pittance on something you wanted but probably didn’t need, like nail polish or a comic book, or a bottle of that cheap perfume, ‘Blue Waltz,” that you could buy at the Ben Franklin. “A stitch in time saves nine.” “Beauty is as beauty does.” (Small consolation to a teenage girl obsessing over her looks).
Then there was the perennial “Waste not, want not.” My grandmother saved green stamps, paper napkins, rubber bands, buttons, scraps of fabric, thread. For years she made her own lye soap — that, not Rinso or Tide, was the laundry soap she used for many years. Having lived through both World Wars and the Great Depression, she had reason to be thrifty. Comfort could not be taken for granted.
When she quipped “Waste not, want not” she was most often referring to uneaten food. You shouldn’t take more than you could eat, and you should eat what you put on your plate. In her house, in those years, we didn’t waste much. Clothes might be altered hand-me-downs from a cousin, or made at home — my grandmother knitted and sewed. She darned the heels and toes of socks so you could wear them forever. Milk came in glass bottles with paper caps. We composted vegetable scraps for the back yard garden. For years we filled large glass jugs with drinking water from a local spring; once the sulfur smell wore off, it was sweet with no taint of chlorine, for it needed no purifying. Nothing came packaged in plastic.
In a small rural town, kids walked to school or rode the bus. I lived in town, so I could walk — every day, unless it was raining too hard, in which case my father would drop me off. But only then. Parents did not wait in long lines in their idling cars to pick up their children. There were no drive-in eateries in our town, so people didn’t sit in their cars with their engines running to consume a burger and fries. Vehicles weren’t oversized. We didn’t need to recycle — it was mostly paper, glass bottles and tin cans that went to the town dump.
You might assume that people who have suffered deprivation are less likely to waste resources — it seems to have been true of my grandmother’s generation — but that seems to have changed. Recycling notwithstanding, waste has become a household habit. And we’ve now been informed that much of what we thought we were recycling has, in fact, been dumped into the ocean. Waste on the microcosmic scale has translated into waste on a global scale — most people aren’t even aware of how much they waste — the water they run, the disposable plastic packaging in which nearly everything we buy is encased, the fuel they burn even when they are not actually driving, the food they buy too much of and throw away. I say “they,” but of course, to one degree or another, we are all guilty.
“Waste not, want not.” Could that be true ? On the domestic level, with an individual, or one family, it might not seem to be. On the global level — it has become a staggering truth. One person alone can’t make a difference — we all have to pay attention. My grandmother would be horrified at how much so many people waste these days. But she did what she could — she started with me.
I never thanked her for that saying, but if she were alive today, I would.