John Humphrys - Waste : Our Casual Suicide

May 29, 2021, 4:23 PM UTC

Did you see the picture in the papers this week of the old-aged pensioner doing a bit of gardening dressed in clothes that had seen not only better days but better decades? He was quite a scruff. He was also the Prince of Wales. The photo, currently adorning the cover of Country Life, was linked to an article about Charles’s country, organic farming and gardening interests. But it also refrained his long-standing belief in ‘make-do-and-mend’: how clothes shouldn’t just be worn a few times and then discarded, but should be kept going by needle and thread, patches, any sort of viable repair work, when there’s still life left in them. It’s part of his wider campaign against waste. He’s been banging on about it for at least as long as he’s been wearing the jacket that’s now good only for digging muck – though it’s still perfectly good for that. But have we been listening?

There’s nothing novel in talking about waste. We’ve been speaking of ‘the throwaway society’ about as long as Charles has been heir to the throne. The phrase is much the same vintage and almost synonymous with the term ‘the consumer society’, and it is no coincidence that the two notions are so closely wedded. They go back to the 1950s when throwing stuff away was almost a symbol of liberation and of a new affluence after the hardships, the rationing, the eking out, of the war years. You didn’t need to care any more about waste because you were freer and richer.

The ‘affluent society’ identified by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s was all about spending not saving, about having something new rather than patching up what was old. If you went on behaving as my parents had done – I never saw my mother sit down without something to darn or mend in her hand, and the image of my father repairing our shoes remains vivid in my mind – then you were fuddy-duddy, you hadn’t moved with the times. Novelty was all and the old must be chucked out: we didn’t want reminders of how the world had been.

So the consumer society was born. What had once been ‘built to last’ gave way to ‘built-in obsolescence’, the surreptitious intention that the things we bought should be made to go bust so that we’d need to buy something new to replace them. To those who had lived by an ethic born of scarcity such deliberate wastefulness was little short of obscene. But the world moves on and the hedonistic era of the late fifties and sixties had as little time for such a moral attitude to waste as it had for heavy Victorian furniture and anti-macassar.

Today, attitudes to waste are at least in part generational. The older generation, especially those who experienced the war, are probably the most sensitive to waste, and in particular to food waste, the most scandalous case of all of waste in our society. A woman I know in her late nineties complains that she simply can’t persuade her care home to serve her small portions of food, which is all her elderly appetite can manage. “Oh, eat what you can and leave the rest,” the carers routinely say to her. But she finds it morally offensive, to ‘leave the rest’ because she knows perfectly well it will just get binned. So she struggles to eat more than she wants or than her body will allow, and she ends up leaving a plate half full of food while feeling both physically uncomfortable and ashamed at the wastefulness she feels she is contributing to.

The most recent statistics (from 2019) revealed that within the European Union 88 million tonnes of food was wasted every year (that’s worth around 143bn euros). The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reckons a third of food is wasted globally. The moral enormity of this hardly needs pointing out to anyone who’s even vaguely aware of world hunger. Even within the affluent EU, the

European Commission estimates, there are 43 million people who can’t have a ‘quality meal’ two days on the run.

It’s not just food that we waste, of course. We waste everything, pretty much. And it’s not just the rich who are cavalier about chucking stuff out - though they are certainly very good at it, as a casual look at skips outside big houses in the posher areas will confirm. Everyone’s at it. If you doubt it, I suggest you spend a day hanging around an average council refuse tip or recycling centre.

Why does this matter, if we can afford it, you might ask? If we want to chuck out a load of pine furniture because light oak is now in, what’s the harm? Well, partly because it squanders scarce resources and we are getting through our resources, especially our natural ones, at an ever increasing rate. There’s also the question of packaging – usually vast quantities of plastic involved.. We may think it is all going to be carefully sorted and reused ‘sustainably’, but then we discover that a lot of it gets sent off to countries like Turkey where it’s casually dumped, burned or left to find its own way to pollute the sea. According to Greenpeace Britain sent more than half its discarded plastic packaging abroad (688,000 tonnes) and recycled only 486,000 tonnes here. Turkey is supposed to have clamped down on these imports but Greenpeace claims the business was still going big-time as recently as February, with record numbers being shipped over there to pollute the Turkish environment.

But the third reason is the biggest. What we waste has first to be produced and the production processes directly contribute to global gas emissions and hence to global warming. The UN reckons that global food waste alone contributes to 8% of global gas emissions. But all the other stuff we waste through our profligate consumption habits has its own tally of global emissions, from the energy used to make it and the transport used to deliver it to us so that we can then throw it away. If climate change caused by global emissions is in the process of destroying the human habitat on planet Earth, then you could say that waste is our casual form of suicide.

I said earlier that attitudes to waste are partly generational, and that’s true. But it’s not true that all young people are casual about waste. Far from it. It is true that some young fashion is spectacularly unsustainable, with brands boasting that their range of clothing is so cheap you only need wear an item once because you can ‘afford’ then to throw it away. And at the other end there is the wonderfully ironic fashion for the wildly expensive ‘distressed’ look – jeans so ripped to pieces at new that even my mother wouldn’t have bothered to try to repair them. There are always idiots in the world and sharks ready to relieve them of their money. But most of the young come in neither category and the growing ‘green’ awareness among the young (if polls are to be believed) is accompanied by zealotry against waste and the development of new ways of avoiding it. To many of them recycling is not just about bins. It’s about using social media to share and about developing websites that simultaneously help some people to offload without waste and others to acquire without spending. Good on them.

Am I picking on individuals too much here? Probably. Because the biggest wasters, or at least the most insouciant wasters, are institutions not individuals. Why do those big office blocks keep their lights on all night? They can hardly expect the Queen to come round and turn them all off, as she is reported to do at Buckingham Palace. Why do you find office computer terminals regularly kept on after their users have gone home as I invariably found when I used to turn up at the BBC in the middle of the night to present a breakfast programme? Why do banks (if you can find one open) endlessly change their interiors, sometimes favouring security and screens only then to rip them out so that they can be all friendly and over-the-counter? And most of all, why are governments so wasteful?

It must be boring working for the National Audit Office or being a civil servant deployed by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Their work seems never to change. It is all about how government departments routinely waste billions. Whether it’s the Ministry of Defence in its procurement division, the Department of Health setting up a national computer system, or even down to the cavalier way departments get renamed to suit a current political fad – should the title of the business department include ‘industrial strategy’ or not? – waste is casually incurred even down to the trivial level of stationery having to get trashed and replaced. And then there are the government vanity projects – the Millennium Dome, the Olympic Park, HS2. Is there a single piece of evidence to suggest that the concept of waste is ever even a criterion in the decision-making that leads to these white elephants?

My simple point is that we seem collectively to have become wasteful by habit. But it is worse than that. We live in an economic system that tells us there is no alternative if we are to prosper. Thus we are back to built-in obsolescence. And not just on the level of a washing machine or a toaster but in total. Our whole system is geared to making us spend money and buy things irrespective of need and, more importantly, irrespective of cost in terms of waste of resources and, ultimately, the threat to our habitat.

Economists call it ‘demand’. ‘Demand’ has to be maintained and increased just to keep the show on the road – to keep the economy growing and people in work. In the affluent west, ‘demand’ means personal consumption. Roughly 70% of our economy is accounted for by personal consumption (it’s barely half of that in China). If we don’t keep consumer demand ticking away at that rate, the fevered argument goes, then the economy is heading for the buffers. And we’ve learned to do almost anything to keep consumer demand going. You no longer even need to earn the money first: you can borrow it. And you certainly don’t need to consider repairing what you’ve already bought. It’s usually cheaper to chuck it away and buy something new.

From the individual’s point of view that makes sense because usually it actually is cheaper to buy a new gizmo than find someone who can repair the old one. And we’ve found a way of getting the new one made even more cheaply than the old one can be repaired: we get it made in China. No wonder cobblers are going out of business because ‘demand’ for their services has been all but snuffed out. What doesn’t get put in the equation, however, is the cost of the waste incurred – the waste in chucking away the old and the production and transport costs of importing the new. Economists have a word for such costs too. They call them ‘externalities’, a wonderfully anodyne-sounding term, implying that because the cost is external, ‘outside’, we don’t need to worry our little heads about it. That argument is a little dubious, to say the least if the ‘externalities’ of waste are destroying the planet.

So we need to stop consuming so much, waste less, preserve more and change the whole nature of our economy so that we are not impelled to make all the wrong choices. Yes, as I said earlier, there’s nothing new in the story of the throwaway society. We’ve heard it all before. And we’ve heard it all before from Prince Charles, dressed in that jacket in the various stages of its graceful progress of decay. But does the fact that he’s been banging on about it for years with little to show for it make it wrong?

What’s your view? Let us know.