Gratitude makes the journey better and so does kindness

Tag: waste

Social Conscience Should Be On This Year’s Christmas Wish List

Originally published on CFJC Today and Armchair Mayor News on November 21, 2016. 

Exactly four days ago my family and I moved from one area of Kamloops to another. Before packing up the house we selected the items we no longer use but are still in good condition and we took them to a couple of our thrift stores of choice (ran by volunteers and raising money for worthy causes.)

Upon unpacking in the new place, we sorted some more and more things went to the thrift stores. We’re not crazy shoppers in any way, but when kids grow up and life happens, so does occasional surplus. The simplest thing for us and least time consuming would be to throw it all away, but how much garbage (a lot of which is not really garbage) can our landfills hold? The answer is a sobering one: a lot less than we send there.

The big stores are already playing the happy holiday tunes. Smiling Santas and bouncy reindeer plus all that winter wonderland décor make us go ‘what the heck’ and we add one more item to the basket. Not all bad if we give the extra away to someone who needs it. After all, ‘tis the season to make sure that all of us have what we need, from food to clothing and shoes to household stuff.

Right. With so much surplus you’d think that would be a no brainer. If you ever stepped into the donation drop-off area of a thrift store, you were likely amazed to see the sea of objects. The volunteer on site probably advised to leave your treasures ‘anywhere you see an empty spot’. So much stuff.

And yet, there is still so much need.

A few years ago while still living on the Coast my sons and I went to visit the cargo area in the port of Vancouver. The number of containers was staggering. As far as the eye can see. Some of the best known big box stores were topping the list of ‘most containers received on a regular basis’, our guide said.

With so much merchandise on the shelves of big box retailers, the needs of all the needy ones should be covered. With everything from food to bare necessities and beyond, the homeless, the poor and all the organizations dealing with the least fortunate such as shelters and soup kitchens should have enough to spare.

Yet reality reveals a more somber image. Allow me to burst your happy thinking bubble with a few facts that can and should be rectified soon by all of us:

  • Some of the big box stores (in Kamloops too, yes) would rather throw away their merchandise than donate it, not before rendering it unusable by breaking it or tearing it apart (shared by a couple of my kind friends and acquaintances who have come across it first-hand)
  • Shelters need so much more than they have. A Facebook post I came across not long ago was a plea for donations for one of the women’s shelters in town as the ‘shelves have never looked so bare’. Knowing that a store destroys its merchandise instead of donating makes one’s run blood cold.
  • According to a statistic from the Elizabeth Fry Society, it costs $55,000 to leave a homeless person on the street, compared to $37,000 if the same person was to be provided with housing and adequate social services (the cost would likely decrease considerably if all the big box stores would kindly donate their goods rather than destroying and sending them to the landfill)
  • Approximately 50 percent of children from single-parent families and 13 percent of two-parent families live in poverty in British Columbia, as per last year’s report by the advocacy group First Call. Upsetting, isn’t it, that good food, clothing and household items get thrown in the garbage before someone benefits from them.

What then? We could each do our part and divert most of our personal surplus from going to the landfill by donating it to where it’s most needed. Beyond that, we ought to speak up so the big corporate machine can hear: throwing things in the landfill not before rendering them useless points to lack of social conscience and overall poor form.

After all, a store, no matter how big or small depends on its customers to keep on existing and thriving. We are the customers. We have the right and the responsibility to speak up and ask that those in the community who need help be helped. All it takes is for someone to say: move the surplus to the donation area.

Imagine, if only for a few minutes, a community where waste would be minimal because:

  • Adjacent to the landfill there would be a ‘still good to use’ area where someone’s surplus becomes someone else’s treasure
  • Stores big and small would donate their surplus to the needy in town and beyond
  • Surplus construction materials and household stuff would allow for building of more homes for the homeless and the poor, reducing the number and intensity of problems caused by poverty and social neglect

Say, wouldn’t you like that? I would.

A Story Of Waste And Inexcusable Indignities

Food The article was initially published as a column in the Armchair Mayor News on December 12, 2014. 

Our garden was lush and plentiful this year. We had lettuce since early spring, we had green onion, radishes, kale, chard, and herbs. Later in the summer we had carrots and potatoes and corn. We shared lots with friends and still had enough to freeze.

All that we had was grown on less than half of our backyard, so it was only normal that I kept fantasizing about growing food on the rest of it. If less than half could feed us so well, how about a whole back yard?

The work was hard, no question. Incredibly pleasurable though and rewarding. On any given summer morning I was greeted by an army of grasshoppers guarding the corn, pumpkins, tomatoes and potatoes. Hopping as their nature prescribed, they were a sign that my organic garden was well liked by other critters like butterflies and ladybugs.

The boys helped out as well and they loved eating straight from the garden. They learned a lot too; gratefulness most of all, and the wonder of a seed becoming a full grown plant ready to provide for us.

They learned the value of food and understood why throwing it out uneaten, as waste, is unacceptable. It happens more than we would expect, or admit.

I remember seeing piles of fruit and vegetables discarded on Granville Island in garbage bins, a stark contrast with the perfect produce offered inside where everything looked nothing short of perfect.

I felt slightly uncomfortable thinking that we, the consumers, shape that perfect offer with our buying habits; which, in turn, have been shaped and conditioned by crafty marketing teams over the years.

The fallacy of that way of thinking and acting is that produce is not perfect. In our garden we got to see dwarf veggies, contorted carrots and a misshaped pear here and there. Nature is not perfect. But they were all perfectly edible, no matter the shape.

I remember when I was little and among others, I would go get the fresh eggs every day. I liked seeing them round in the straw nests and I would always inspect them carefully. Some were misshapen and I would ask my dad why. He would shrug, not bothered in the least. It’s how they come out, he would say. It made sense. Nature is not perfect.

Fast forward a few good years; I was at Simon Fraser University having lunch with other grad students and while no meal stood out, this particular one did. One of my friends was ready to eat a peach and seeing a bruise on one side, she said a loud ‘yuck’ and sent the unfortunate fruit straight into the garbage bin.

Many years later, the memory of the plunging peach is still with me. It stopped me from throwing food out every time, and it made me shake my head every time I see hungry people. I tried often to do my part and provide food for the less fortunate, yet thoughts related to food and waste are relentless. How could there be?

There is enough food lying around for no one to go hungry no matter what their budget is like, even if there is no budget at all.

There is too much food going straight into the garbage because of perfection standards that we should no longer entertain; it is insulting towards those who do not have any food, and it is insulting towards nature itself. We cannot give to food banks with one hand and throw away food with the other.

If you have doubts about food waste, just talk to the produce clerks. If the store is small enough you might see the old stuff bagged up for sale at a fraction of the price, a good solution to prevent waste. In big stores though, everything unsightly or old goes into the garbage.

A recent report pointed out that Canadians throw out up to 50 per cent of the food they buy. A few years ago I would rolled my eyes at the numbers, but not anymore. I went to one too many dinner parties or events where the leftovers were discarded and sent straight to the landfill.

With Christmas just around the corner, the thought of food and food waste comes back with a vengeance. How much food will be wasted, how many people will go hungry or eat low quality food that comes from a can rather than fresh, albeit slightly bruised produce that is better nutritionally than anything canned that might or might not come with added chemicals.

There is no simple answer to the food dilemma. Until we all decide that bad food is not the bruised or misshapen fruit, or even the ones that reach the best before date (think perfectly edible stuff like frozen food, dry food or yogurt that go a day or two over the date), we will have inexcusable indignities in food distribution, and we will have mountains of food piled up in landfills instead of people’s plates.

As for the truly bad food, some of it genetically modified, or the one that we insist on growing with loads of toxic pesticides so that we can have it all: lots of it to choose from, available all year round, cheap enough to throw out and tasteless enough to not feel bad about it anyway… well, the old ‘you are what you eat’ should be warning enough.

If less than half of a cultivated back yard can provide enough fresh produce to feed a family of four over the summer and well into the fall, sure people can grow enough food, healthy food that is, to have everyone fed and no bits thrown out unless they go into the compost.

With food becoming more expensive as we go (have you noticed?) it’s impossible not to ask why. Why, when there is enough to feed us all, and if there isn’t enough, then there shouldn’t be any in the garbage.

Is “Cradle to Grave” About To Die?

Old? Still holding...Here’s something I struggle with: the new models . . . of this and that.

From phones to TV screens and cars, a new model is just around the corner and the old ones seem obsolete all of a sudden, though many are not.

Do we still believe in the “cradle to grave” concept?

Or are we so driven by money, materialistic desires and keeping up with the times and the Joneses that we are slowly pushing the very concept into its own grave?

There was a time when goods were purchased with no plans of replacing them a year or couple of years later just because the new model was out. Those goods were meant to last.

As a race that keeps growing and invading more of the remote corners of the planet, we are facing two issues. The first one: the exploitation of natural, non-renewable resources to produce the goods we both need and want, though you would agree it is the “wants” that drive the most destructive behaviour.

As for the second one, it is a growing one, pun fully intended. The garbage we leave behind is a reality we can no longer run from.

Every town and city has developed a garbage satellite and whether we are aware of it or not, each of us leaves a trail of garbage, too. That the garbage trails grows long, thick and reaches far beyond the country borders is a present day situation that applies to many.

There is now domestic waste, industrial waste and e-waste, the latter being the least glamorous of all. That’s the one that reaches further than we have ever imagined.

In all fairness, few of us have pictured the kind of waste that TV screens, old phones and computers, and all the electronic paraphernalia we’re surrounded with will leave behind once they break down or fall out of our graces.

With every new model introduced an old one goes out the door. Our door, not the people in a third world country that have no choice but survive the folly of “this year’s model.”

For every new model created and its countless copies to be sold around the world, resources are being mined, people are being exploited and minds are being swayed off in a way that makes them unwilling, unable and uninterested in answering the question “Do I really need that?” That includes children. A losing trade for us all.

The fact that things become cheaper as we go, money-wise, does not help, either. They become expensive in every other way, but our health, our children’s well-being — emotional and otherwise — and the environment are paying the highest price.

To be mindful and be able to ignore a killer sale or promotional price becomes an art, perhaps not the easiest to master.

Out of sight, out of mind is a luxury concept we can no longer afford. Our purchase today impacts someone and ultimately the community we share with our fellow humans.

The old iPhone with a cracked screen that will be send to a third world country for dismantling and recycling of rare metals will find its way to haunt us. Wind and rain know no boundaries. They blow just the same and shuffle the same polluting chemicals on all of us, sooner or later.

What’s the solution? We’re too far in the game to give up the gadgets and the convenience associated with goods we’re accustomed to. But we can still work on our attachment to them.

Stick to what we have for as long as it works, no matter if the surface is no longer shiny. Opt for companies that include ethics in their business plans and never forget that each of our actions impacts the world, whether we see the results or not.

You could argue that one person’s actions will not change the world, but I choose to believe that changes have to start somewhere. Just like a fire, a spark is all it takes.

Originally published as a column in the Saturday edition of the Kamloops Daily News on August 24, 2013

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