What a Waste

Now that the Christmas is over, some of you might have gifts that you don’t want. If so, you might be thinking about returning an unwanted holiday gift back to the store. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance your holiday returns will end up in a landfill. Each year, consumers return a lot of goods, a significant portion of which are processed during the Christmas season. Unfortunately, only some of returns make it back to shop shelves.

Once a product is returned, the retailer has to deal with the cost of assessing the item and repackaging it. Sadly, especially with low value items, often it is cheaper for the retailer to throw out returned goods rather than trying to resell them. On top of the sorting and repackaging problems, there’s also the time limit to get certain products resold. Returned electronics, for example, can lose much of their value in just a few months. This is why many returns are sold for pennies to liquidators and discounters before ending up at regional wholesalers, who send the goods to pawn shops, dollar stores or out of the country. Retailers have worked out logistics how to get goods from the place of manufacture to the shop shelves. Reverse logistics (getting good from customers back to the shops) are severely lacking.

The overwhelming majority of my clothes are from second hand shops. I try not to buy new goods whenever possible so as to avoid increasing demand for more new stuff. While shopping in second hand clothing stores, I have noticed that pretty much all the clothes there are with no signs of wear at all, they are completely new. Many of these clothes still have all the tags on them.

The environmental impact of such human behavior ought to be obvious. Precious natural resources are consumed; stuff is manufactured and shipped around the entire planet only to end up in a landfill without being used at all. Moreover, not only are these returns environmentally unfriendly, but they are also costing humanity a fortune. Whenever we purchase some goods, the price we pay also needs to cover the expense of producing all those other goods that end up directly in the landfill.

It saddens me to watch the wastefulness of humanity. If trashing the planet at least made us happy, then there would be at least some argument in favor of the modern wasteful lifestyle. But we aren’t even enjoying ourselves while we destroy everything around us.

I grew up in poverty. When I was a child, each time I witnessed rich people wasting resources, it made me immensely envious. Why couldn’t I just take for free all this stuff that the owners weren’t even using? I live in a city where countless poor people lack adequate housing. Yet numerous houses stand empty with nobody living inside. On this planet, millions of people suffer from malnutrition, many of them even starve to death. Yet the humanity throws out a significant portion of all the food we produce. I have never experienced hunger, but I did grow up in the local equivalent of slums (namely, a tiny apartment in a house that needed serious repairs). Whenever I see other people wasting resources, I feel a stab of envy, because I’d love to take for free all this stuff they don’t need.

Nowadays, my financial situation is reasonably good. Overall, I’m happy with my life. But I still need to be careful with my finances, because my income is below-average. That was an intentional choice. Back when I had a real job that required working for 40 hours per week, I had more money, but I felt miserable. I had no free time or energy to actually enjoy my life. Thus I decided to work part time and be self-employed. I value free time more than money, so that’s a trade off I chose to make. Nonetheless, I do have to get by with little income, thus I still feel envious whenever I watch other people wasting resources, because I’d love to take their stuff for free if they don’t need it.

While living in Germany, I tried to do some dumpster diving. The problem was that I wasn’t athletic enough to jump into a dumpster. Sometimes I succeeded in fishing something out of a dumpster. On many other occasions, I saw various things lying there at the bottom of the dumpster; stuff that I would have loved to take for myself, but unfortunately I couldn’t reach this thing. That hurt.


My bedroom window.

And this is the view from my bedroom window.* Pay attention to the large building on the right side. It is empty. Nobody lives there. On the ground floor, there are some shops, but the above floors are completely empty. This house has been empty for at least seven years (that’s when I moved to my current home).

The other reason why I dislike wasting resources is the environmental harm. Personally, I have little hopes of succeeding to make the world a better place. But at least I don’t want to make things worse. I dislike the idea of leaving a trail of trash behind me. And I definitely don’t want to cause more harm than I have to. Merely by being alive, I am bound to cause some environmental harm. I cannot reduce this harm to zero, and I don’t really want to severely sacrifice personal comfort in my attempts to reduce the harm I cause. But I definitely do not want to cause more harm than necessary. When people are trashing the planet and don’t even enjoy themselves in the process, than that’s not just merely harmful, it is also pointless and absurd.

By the way, this Christmas I was lucky not to get any gifts that would turn into a waste disposal problem. The only unwanted gift was a goose that was meant for both me and my mother. A family member gave us a raw goose with the expectation that my mother will cook it. Unfortunately, there were some problems. Firstly, my mother doesn’t like cooking, she perceives it as a chore; normally she doesn’t prepare any foods that require more than an hour to cook. Secondly, our oven is absolutely unsuited for cooking a goose. The oven is too small for something as large as a goose. On top of that, we have a forty years old oven that burns natural gas, meaning there is an open flame at the bottom and no reliable way how to control the temperature. Thirdly, in order to roast a goose you need a large roasting tin, that’s something my mother didn’t have.

I barely assisted my mother as she tried to cook the bird; instead I got to spend a day watching her misery and feeling sorry for her. The good news is that there was only smoke and no fire. All the goose fat that melted and dripped below to the bottom of the oven didn’t ignite even though it landed next to an open flame. On top of that, the meat actually was edible once we threw out all the burned skin. So I guess it could have been worse. Still, my mother would have been much happier if this chore hadn’t been thrust upon her during Christmas.

* I don’t particularly like the view from my window, but I do like the window. It is antique, made from pine wood. Back when I started living in this place, the windows were covered with countless layers of dirty, old, flaky paint. I fixed the windows myself. First, remove all the layers of paint. Next, sand the wood. Afterwards I covered the wood with linseed oil on the inside and some paint made from pine tar and linseed oil on the outside. By the way, I know a lot about antique wooden windows, I even know how to make my own linseed oil putty for glazing windows. In Europe, I have seen countless historical buildings with ugly windows made from PVC plastic. That looks so sad. I understand that antique windows are often hard to fix (especially when damaged). I also know that old windows are pretty bad at heat insulation. But the new windows that are made nowadays are just so damn ugly.


  1. says

    I like your:
    saddens me to watch the wastefulness of humanity. If trashing the planet at least made us happy, then there would be at least some argument in favor of the modern wasteful lifestyle. But we aren’t even enjoying ourselves while we destroy everything around us.

    In a sense holidays are emotionally wasteful, in the same way. We take time off and go somewhere and sit in a room with relatives that we really don’t give a shit about, pretending not to want to strangle their noisy kids, and desperately hoping we don’t burn the entree.

  2. says

    Marcus @#1

    We take time off and go somewhere and sit in a room with relatives that we really don’t give a shit about, pretending not to want to strangle their noisy kids, and desperately hoping we don’t burn the entree.

    I don’t do this. I spent these Christmas doing what I would do any other day when I have no work to so. Read some books/online articles, make some artsy things, walk the dogs, write some blog posts, visit my boyfriend and have some sex. You know, the usual stuff.

    Those relatives about whom I don’t give a shit already have noticed this fact. Probably because the feelings are mutual and they don’t care about me either. In my family we don’t bother with pretending, especially when both sides have already noticed that the lack of emotional attachment is mutual.

    I agree with you that Christmas can be emotionally wasteful. The difference is that whenever I identity some action as wasteful, I try to seek ways how to avoid doing it.

  3. Jazzlet says

    I like the window, I bet that gap keeps the cold out in winter and heat out in summer, you’ve done a beautiful job on it.

    I didn’t get any presents this christmas, and that was absolutely fine. We did have one slightly fancier meal than normal, in that we had a rolled breast of mutton, and we don’t normally eat that much meat, but we made the remains into rissoles, so I feel suitably thrifty. I think I’m going to use the excess fat to make a seed ball for the birds, the fat is solid at room temperature so it ought to work well.

    I use a site called Trash Nothing which encourages people to post things they no longer want or to ask for things they need to prevent things ending up in landfill. It’s amazing what people post and what others find a use for. We have a two seater leather sofa that someone didn’t want, it was a little cat scratched in one corner, but as it sits in our bay window where Jake likes to watch the word go by that wasn’t a problem as we knew it was likely to get wrecked by him – it’s the second one we’ve had off Trash Nothing – and we didn’t want to buy a new one just for him to wreck. Although it’s done very well, it still looks fine. We actually gave away our last car through Trash Nothing, it was an old Volkswagon with over 300,000 miles on the clock, and while it was in surprisingly good mechanical condition the wiring loom had gone, so eg despite the electric central locking not working sometimes when you locked the car it would open the windows. Fixing that was going to cost a lot more than the car was worth, but we put it up and a Volkswagon apprentice mechanic, who had access to the tools required, the expertise, and the time to fix, it was very happy to take it off our hands.

  4. says

    Holidays: a waste of resources that leaves you so drained that afterwards you need a week’s holiday at home by yourself to recover.

  5. says

    I stopped giving gifts years ago and told people to stop giving to me. When something is exchanged either way now, it’s something meaningful, purposeful and appreciated. I recently had to do a visa run and picked up things not sold in Taiwan. You can’t get Cadbury chocolate in Taiwan for love nor money.

    When you’re wrapping presents, consider culturally appropriating the Japanese art of furoshiki. I have several large bandanas specifically for that purpose. People love seeing gifts wrapped in cloth. (Then the problem is most people assume the bandana is part of the gift….)

  6. kestrel says

    @#6, Intransitive: oh, that furoshiki link is really cool! What a great idea, I’ll have to try that!

    I usually give people food because everybody I know eats food… since I know them, I know what they like and give them that. I use old wrapping paper that some would throw away, cut it into squares, and use origami to fold boxes from the paper. People sometimes give me paper; there are also times when I see pretty paper I like and buy it. Or if I’m at someone’s house and they have a pile of wrapping paper they are throwing away I ask them if I can have it. Folding the boxes is fun, and it’s a way for me to spend time thinking about people I care about. When you are done with the boxes they can be used to start fires (most of the people in my area use wood for a heat source, since we live in a forest and it must be thinned) or some people keep them and put other things in them. I’ve even, years later, received a gift in one of my own boxes I had given someone.

    I think it’s entirely possible to create one’s own type of holiday and celebrate in a fun and festive way that does not destroy the planet.

  7. lochaber says

    When I scrolled down to the pic of the window, I knew I had to post a comment, because damn, that’s a good looking window. And then reading about you doing all the work on it – congrats, you did a great job.

    As to consumption, I’m reminded of my time when I was enlisted, and I was just continuously amazed at the amount of trash my roommates would produce. Most of our meals were in chow halls, living in barracks is pretty similar to living in dorms, and we didn’t have much space (or money) for excessive junk. But somehow they would produce so much waste they would actually need to purchase trashbags just to deal with their waste – I would be able to put all my waste/trash produced during a week into one of those typical plastic grocery bags, or what you get for fast food to-go, and still have room for a couple more weeks worth. To this day I’m still puzzled as to how they managed to do that.

    Shame about the goose.

    And again, I love that window. That’s pretty impressive, and I’m slightly envious…

  8. says

    @ Intransitive and kestrel

    I agree that furoshiki is really cool. I hadn’t heard about it, but that’s a great idea.

    I usually package my gifts in leftover pieces of paper. Since I shop online, I routinely get boxes and wrapping paper together with my purchases. Instead of throwing them out, I reuse those. I can package some gift in a beige piece of poor quality paper that was used as padding for the box of some online purchase I made in past. Since I am an artist, I usually make some quick drawings on the packaged gift. Thus what used to be poor quality paper ends up looking amazing.

    lochaber @#8

    I definitely got lucky that the home my family bought had old wooden windows in decent condition (meaning: not yet completely rotten).

    I have some photos of how the windows looked like back when I moved to my current home, I also have some photos from back when I was working on them. I guess I will write a blog post about how to fix old windows.

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