Lots of us have an uneasy relationship with throwing things away. We all know that we need to try to generate less waste. Fast fashion is an environmental nightmare, supermarkets still sell pasta in plastic bags that can’t be recycled, we have electronics we no longer use and what on earth do we do with CDs and videotapes?
In the Little House on the Prairie books, Caroline Ingalls throws nothing away. Nothing is wasted. Every last scrap of food is eaten up. Clothes are passed down, and when they are no longer wearable, they are turned into something else. Sheets that wear thin in the middle are cut in half and sewn back together. When they are no longer any good as sheets, they are turned into curtains. Even when all that is left are little scraps, they go into the scrap bag, where they will eventually be used to make quilt blocks and other little things.
By contrast, even the most thrifty of us throw a shocking amount of stuff away. From food that’s not been eaten, to old clothes and broken electronics, to packaging, an awful lot of which was probably not even needed in the first place.
Even when we put things in the recycling, or donate items we don’t want any more, there is always the niggling suspicion that they’re going to end up in landfill anyway.
In one of her books, Alison May of Brocante Home describes how our reluctance to get rid of things that should probably go to landfill via the bin, in a sense results in us turning our homes into landfill sites. That sounds both serious and disgusting, and she writes it in a much more lyrical and humorous way than I have here.
She has a point. We feel bad about throwing things away, so we don’t.
So instead, we hang onto things that we no longer have any use for. Things that don’t work, or that have worn out. Even, sometimes, actual rubbish. It’s as though we feel that if we keep it, we can avoid feeling bad about throwing it away.
The problem is that we end up with houses full of rubbish. Clothes that we don’t wear. Food that’s never going to get eaten. Selvedges because apparently we shouldn’t throw those away, and even crisp packets because people on the internet make them into blankets for homeless people and now we feel bad about chucking those out too.
This results in us not having space for things that we use and love. Obviously waste is a massive problem, and throwing away less stuff can seem like a solution. But it’s a not a solution when we can no longer find anything to wear in our wardrobes because they’re full of things that don’t fit or have holes in or that we were given but we don’t like. We don’t know what’s in our cupboards. We can’t find what we need and we haven’t got the space to do anything or to enjoy living in our homes.
So What’s the Answer?
I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers! I don’t like throwing things away because it feels wasteful and I don’t want to be part of an ecological nightmare. But I also know what it feels like to be drowning in stuff and not able to find anything.
So here are a couple of thoughts.
Thought 1: If It Is Rubbish, Then Throw It Away
We all need to take responsibility to do what we can to cut down on waste. But the main culprits are big industries and retail. Obviously there are things we can do, like avoid fast fashion and buy our vegetables loose where we can. And yes, you could drive 10 miles to Whole Foods so that you can buy pasta and use your own bags, but in the end, it’s still pollution, just in a different way.
The other thing is that if you are the kind of person who worries about throwing things away, who takes her own bags to the supermarket, sews buttons back on things, repairs the holes in her tights where her toes have gone through, recycles where she can and fixes things where she has the knowledge and the skills, then you’re already doing your bit. It’s very different to being the kind of person who throws away all her clothes after a couple of years because she’s bored of them.
So if you are already repairing, recycling and reusing what you can, then please don’t feel bad about throwing away actual rubbish. If you’ve had a pile of crisp packets in the tea towel drawer for 5 years because you had plans to make blankets for homeless people, and now you can’t use the drawer for tea towels, just throw the crisp packets away. You’re probably never going to get round to it, and the tea towels need that drawer.
If you’re not going to use it, then get rid of it. It doesn’t have to be the bin. Someone else might want it. But please don’t feel bad about throwing away things that have already been repaired, things that are not fixable, or actual rubbish. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Throwing away a pile of crisp packets is not the same as throwing away a perfectly good 3 piece suite because it doesn’t match the cat.
Thought 2: Do We Need It In the First Place?
Instead of asking ourselves whether we can justify throwing something away when there might still be some use left in it, we could ask ourselves whether we really need to buy something new.
One of the ways in which consumerism works is by convincing us that buying something is the solution to pretty much everything. Yet we’ve all experienced times when it’s been proven untrue. Times when we haven’t been able to afford to buy anything, or we’ve forgotten until it’s too late, or the weather’s bad and we haven’t wanted to go out, or something else has come up that had to take priority over a shopping trip. And we’ve also probably experienced that feeling when we realised we’ve bought something to make ourselves feel better, or as a way of escaping from things that are making us unhappy, only to find that the thing we bought didn’t measure up.
Lets think about this for a minute. We all do it.
“There’s nothing in for dinner! I’ll have to run out and get something!”
Do you really have nothing in at all? No tins, no pasta or rice, meat in the freezer, vegetables that might be past their best but would be fine in a stew?
“Gah, a party! I’ve got nothing to wear! I’ll have to buy something!”
Hang on, you have nothing? What on earth is in your wardrobe?! Lots of things can be jazzed up with a sparkly cardi, a different pair of shoes, or, if you have the time and the energy, some embroidery or a bit of a refashion. I’m not saying don’t buy clothes. We all have to sometimes. But there’s no point in having a dozen party outfits if you only go to 3 parties a year, and there’s no need to have a new one every time.
“Oh no, World Book Day again! I’ll have to go into town and get the kiddo something to wear!”
Really? Could you not make something out of what you have already? Clothes in the child’s wardrobe, things in your husband’s wardrobe, existing dressing up outfits, the bag of stuff your mum gave you because she didn’t know what to do with it, the pile of fabric behind the bedroom door?
Sometimes need to buy things, and we shouldn’t feel guilty when we do. But perhaps we should consider whether we actually need them. Because of the way consumerism governs much of life in the west, we often buy things when we don’t need them. And now the lines have become blurred between needing and wanting, between managing and making do, and doing what is easiest and most convenient. We often end up buying things not because we need them, but because it’s the easiest solution and also the one that is forced on us from every angle.
Bringing less into our homes results in having less in our homes. Being a bit stricter with ourselves in that sense means that we are more likely to have stuff we actually like and use, as well as space to see what we have. We’re less likely to have so much stuff we’ve no idea what’s there, or feel overwhelmed by too many things. It also means that things we throw away are more likely to be actual rubbish. We’ll have less to get rid of that isn’t actually rubbish, but just the result of having too much.
How Else Does This Relate to Us as Makers and Creators?
As designers, makers and creators (yes, that includes you!), we are resourceful, creative, imaginative and problem solvers. We can take a pile of unrelated items, whether they are ingredients from the fridge or bits of fabric and some haberdashery and turn them into something that can be eaten, worn, or used in some other way.
We treasure the things we’ve made. When you’ve spent hours and hours deciding on a design, choosing fabric, cutting out, sewing it up, checking the fit, altering it as you go, you’re far more likely to end up with something you’ll love and that you’ll want to wear until it falls apart. And when you have several outfits that you love to wear just as much, there’s no need to have stuff in your wardrobe that you don’t like or that doesn’t fit. So you have enough without too much, less to throw away, and less guilty feelings about things that don’t get worn or used, or that have to be thrown away or donated.
I’ve written a couple of posts about this if you want more to read. This one is about the benefits of making your own clothes, and this one has tips for designing a wardrobe of handmade clothes.