Sunday, February 18, 2007

A nation of wasteful abundance

I remember being shocked in my first few days at university here to see the amount of food and paper serviettes (napkins) that were wasted at every mealtime in the Dining Commons on campus. It seemed as though everyone took half a dozen napkins instead of just one. Lots of people took far more food than they could possibly eat and then threw it away. My culture shock at this was nothing however compared to Mark Mathabane's. Mark is about my age but grew up in the black township of Alexandra in South Africa under the apartheid regime. He ended up studying in the United States too. In his book Kaffir Boy in America (sequel to Kaffir Boy , the story of his childhood in South Africa) he writes of his first few years in the United States. He too was (unfavorably) impressed by the amount of wasted food. His shock was clearly far greater than mine of course. I got over it to some extent but the memory of the shock is still there.

Occasionally as I look at our well-stocked pantry and wonder what we should have for dinner, I think how spoiled we are. We bulk buy because it's convenient. We can store far more food than we would be able to in the typical English house. Although we might not be eating what we wanted, we would have enough food for several weeks should something happen to stop us from getting to the stores.

It's not only food, but all the other 'stuff' in our lives that is embarrassingly abundant. I assuage my guilt a little by trying to throw as little out as possible. No, that does not mean hoarding! We recycle paper, glass, and plastic, and would even if our town did not require it. I pass on outgrown kids clothing to friends with smaller children, or to local agencies that collect such stuff. Recently we have used Freecycle as a way of passing things on that we have no use for anymore. (Freecycle exists in many other countries including in the UK too.) It's a small thing to do, but why throw things out when someone might be happy to reuse them? Enjoy the abundance, but cut down on the waste!

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