My name is Liz, and I’m a freegan.

Free philodendron

It’s crazy what some people throw away.

It’s hardly a secret that I’ve spent a lot of time combing through other people’s garbage. I can’t stop myself from excitedly telling everyone about my finds.

Sometimes it’s part of a clean up effort. Other times it’s roadside, in piles left out for council cleanup. In the latter case, I know there will be treasures amongst the discards.

And I do find the most useful things. Stools, bedside tables, laundry racks (two, matching, from separate junk piles), bookshelves, a drafting table, a hat, a mirror, tent pegs, plant pots, plants, etc. I’ve managed to furnish my apartment almost entirely with secondhand (and often free) pieces.

I once carried two long IKEA birch floating shelves about a kilometre from where they lay back to my place, then up three flights of stairs. They are not light. With the addition of two cinder blocks, they now form an ideal side table / bookshelf / plant display. IKEA hack indeed.

Why do I do this? It’s not that I can’t afford to buy new things. I am very much privileged, not poor.

I am a freegan because:

  1. Much of what is thrown away is simply not junk.
  2. I can’t bear the thought of useful things going to landfill.
hat
Found this hat washed up on the beach shortly after arriving in Sydney. Just what I was looking for – a beater hat for running. In fairness, someone probably lost this while wearing it surfing.

We’re not only consumers, we’re landfillers.

We already know that as a society, we are hyper-consumers. Buying more than we can use or enjoy is already silly and wasteful. It’s just a whole extra layer of psychosis to be landfilling Things all the time only to replace them with more Things just like them.

Some of us have more than our fair share by luck, not virtue. When we don’t steward our goods into an appropriate recycling or reuse stream, we abuse the privilege.

The production inputs of a thing are not actually a sunk cost if they contribute to one fewer new thing being produced that didn’t need to exist.

If something is no longer useful to us, we need to make it available to others.

It’s why secondhand shops work – many people can use and will regularly pay for used goods. Me included. A significant amount of my wardrobe is from Vinnie’s, Salvo’s, or clothing swaps with friends. I’ve even been described as well-dressed on occasion! A small proportion of what I wear has been indefinitely borrowed from sisters 😉

I still buy some things new, in case you’re wondering. Toothbrushes, helmets, and a few other things are best in new condition. I just make secondhand my first choice in as many ways that I can, including clothing and homewares.

Closing the loop on Zero Waste.

When you are living with the intention of generating as little waste as possible, it becomes psychologically difficult to buy things that you don’t think will last, or don’t know how to reuse, recycle, or rot. Making use of what others are trashing is one way to close the loop and be the change that the circular economy requires.

The good, the bad, and the economics.

Conch shell

I like frameworks and theories and ideas that can be plotted into a grid. They offer me a chance to unpack things in a methodical way and search for the gaps in my thinking.

Frameworks are filters with which we can view the world.

I picked up a lot of these during my undergrad at a top business school, well known for churning out accountants and financial types. Our course load included plenty of math, statistics, accounting, and several flavours of management economics (yeeeew!).

In our economics classes, we learned about game theory, economies of scale, diminishing marginal costs, the difference between normal returns and profit, and the like. Useful stuff for understanding the way world markets function. I say function in the operational sense – I do not claim they function well.

We are taught these theories because they prepare people like me to keep accumulating wealth for our employers or ourselves to keep the societal status quo in balance. You know, be successful.

It’s not just employers and the government who want this either. We all want to be useful, earn a living, be able to feed ourselves and participate fully in society.

Extractive economics: tradeoffs vs. false choices

What I didn’t fully realize ’til later on is that the type of economics I studied is just a small area of the overall field. In fact, we mainly learned theories based in extractive economics. The macro side focused on the way banks work and the methods the Bank of Canada uses to manage inflation, and so on. The micro side on how best to reduce the cost of widgets, scarcity and demand, and how to operate within various market structures (and so on).

We learn not necessarily that greed is good, but that growth is.

Okay, that’s not strictly true. I had one class  – Business and Sustainability – that would plant seeds (pardon the pun) within me that would take some time to germinate. But the mainstay of my formal education was to learn economic theories to apply in extractive scenarios, which is to say: to make things efficiently to make a profit.

What I do appreciate about economic theories in general is that they help us dispell blatant wishful thinking.

i.e. Basic economics tells us that money comes from somewhere; one cannot just print money to become richer. Ergo, if a politician promises more money to a ministry or project, we are justified in asking where money will be removed from, and how the system may rebalance (or not). It also helps us understand the basic mechanisms of subsidy and taxation as rather effective monetary instruments. We learn about tradeoffs.

But while tradeoffs will always exist, false choices are the result of too narrow thinking. 

Extractive economics is a pyramid scheme

We take new materials from the ground and sell them once, so profit depends on an ongoing supply, and someone is always losing.

The world (and neighbouring planets) are of finite composition. Which means we will run out of new materials eventually. They didn’t talk about this at business school, which is why we should not be surprised that most people who operate in businesses or government today do so by making use of economic theory grounded in extraction. It’s a narrow view, but the prevailing one.

Enter the circular economy

I actually did first learn about the circular economy in that Business and Sustainability course I took way back when. I learned that most wealthy countries are so because of extraction of natural resources, and that their dependence on it creates significant risk in comparison to knowledge economies.

I learned that endless growth is actually impossible within a closed system, like our Earth.

But it’s easy to forget. Or to bury. In our modern world, success is culturally defined by having wealth. We strive and compete and earn and shut out the inequities of our arbitraged global economy. Not all of us are prepared to live off the grid.

The circular economy offers some hope that we won’t have to.

The circular economy asks:
  • how can waste from one process must become fuel for another, just as it is in the natural world?
  • how can we create quality of life without relying on a cycle of endless growth?
  • how can we debunk the idea that accumulating financial wealth is the only form of success?

Taking back our economy.

You can be progressive thinking and still find the field of economics incredibly useful, just don’t fall into the trap that our leaders do that growth is the only measure of economic strength. They may tell us that extraction of resources is the only way to create prosperity. We can disagree.

For more, I highly recommend the book The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken, which I ever so fittingly found in a secondhand bookstore.

It’s a book about economics even an environmentalist could love. And vice versa. In it, he explores why we need to move beyond extractive economics, and why a circular model that respects the laws of nature holds so much potential.

The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken
The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken

The case of the disappearing trash can

overflowing city trash cans

What would happen if your household garbage bin disappeared for a day? And how about the council supplied bins too?

When would you reach for the bin? I’m betting that for most people, it’s early and often throughout the day, and frequently after mealtimes.

If you couldn’t find it, would a bit of panic set in? Maybe frustration, or anger perhaps, if there was nowhere to toss your trash?

Canadians lead the world in niceness and mounties, but we’re also right up there in per capita garbage generation. Canadians produced an average of 777 kilograms of landfill each in 2008. That’s about 15 kilos per week, per person. A little over 2 kilos each day.

I feel sick.

Garbage is a systemic problem.

To toss something into the bin is second nature. It’s ingrained in our culture. We have vast systems of transportation, processing, and landfilling that are all there so we can easily, handily, and cheaply toss things away whenever and wherever the feeling strikes us.

Yes, sure, collecting our waste in one big pile is marginally better than throwing things directly into the ocean. But there are other issues.

Garbage is a waste our of money.

We pay many times over for our folly. We first pay when we buy things designed to be thrown out, and again through taxes to fund the removal, and then again when the garbage wreaks havoc on the environment (in or out of landfill).

Consider that we actually extract, refine and import petroleum resources to power vehicles so we can transport tonnes of materials that we don’t even believe ourselves to have any value to landfill. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, this is absurd.

Garbage is a not an investment

A rule of thumb for managing your finances is to never invest in a depreciating asset. Most cars, for example, are depreciating assets, and therefore not a place you’d put your money in the hopes of getting more or even the same amount back later. You buy a car, but you do not invest in a car.

Let’s think about this in the context of landfilling – we are never going to get anything good in return for the money we’re putting into the landfilling system. We are buying garbage collection infrastructure, but it’ll never pay off as an investment. In business parlance, the ROI is sh#t.

What else could we be doing with the money?

Here’s a thought experiment: what if we took the same resources we’re using now for trash collection and used them instead to collect organic materials? The organics we’d collect would have value as soil inputs. This means we’d be investing in a system that pays dividends rather than one that’s effectively a money pit. We would be creating something of value. Waste would become food.

And now back to your bin.

A by-product of the current vast system of garbage collection is that we have given ourselves permission to throw away whatever we want, and we’ve also given businesses the social licence to sell products that are designed to be sent to landfill, often after a single use.

But enough is enough, and these days more and more of us are choosing to live a Zero Waste lifestyle. Don’t be afraid of this terminology. This most often isn’t producing no waste at all, but just dramatically less in the household. Near-o Waste.

When we reduce our reliance on the bin, we’re creating an alternative system design. We’re taking a step towards not taking more than is our privilege or our need, and toward putting all that energy and funding for waste collection into something more worthwhile.

Where to start? Maybe you don’t feel ready to go cold turkey on trash by literally giving up your bin. But you could start with composting or quitting single use plastics.

Free yourself from the bin!

My perfectly imperfect reusable shopping bag.

I have a handful of reusable bags, but my most cherished is my large canvas tote bag.

It’s a little bulky by some standards, with its thick cotton construction, but it works perfectly for me. I can carry heavy things, sharp things, messy things and this bag doesn’t quit. A wash with the towels now and again keeps it looking tidy, though I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s a looker.

Now cotton has an extremely pretty poor supply chain, it’s true. Replacing all the plastic bags in the world with canvas 1:1 would be a poor solution. But that wouldn’t actually happen. I’ve used my canvas bag at least once a day, often twice a day for the past five years. That works out to around 2700 uses. Ergo, I have never thrown away my canvas bag.

The most important feature of my reusable bag is that it enables me to refuse single use plastics bags while shopping.

SRV_bag

A single use plastic bag and a durable reusable bag are barely even in the same category.

They have the same shape, and when reduced to a single transaction, may appear to accomplish the same thing (carrying goods) but after a few years of re-using my canvas bag, I realize they are not the same thing.

A single use disposable plastic bag is more akin to a fast food wrapper. Designed to be discarded.

Sure, single use plastic bags may be convenient on a basic, mindless level. But how sad that even though our society uses so many of them every day, they are essentially valueless. No one’s life is improved by the acquisition of yet another flimsy, noisy, soon-to-be-trash plastic bag.

They transition far too easily from bag to trash bin, or worse, beach. There is no consistent or ideal way to recycle them, and their flimsiness excuses them from any real expectation of reuse.

Plastic bags are also this perverse combination of fragility and indestructibility – only, they are so in the opposite way we actually need them to be. We’ve all felt the uneasiness of carrying a plastic bag that strains against its contents, threatening to bottom out. And when the time comes that we wish they would just go away and stop billowing out of our cupboards, they somehow inevitably escape and tumbleweed toward the waterways, for eternity, essentially.

My canvas reusable bag, on the other hand, is like a well-seasoned cast iron pan. I’m going to have it for a long time. I cherish it. I almost always carry it with me. It is a tool that helps me live a better life. It is invaluable. I am not trying to throw it away all the time.

There really is no perfect bag.

I’m open to the invention of a miraculous material that is lightweight, strong, and can be used once and responsibly discarded, with minimal environmental impact during resource harvesting, production and disposal, but I’m not holding my breath. Plastic isn’t it and neither is paper. Neither is bio plastic, for that matter.

So in the meantime, imperfect as it is, my cotton canvas bag is the best bag for me. I’ll use it over and over and over, and revel in its quiet strength.

If you’re using a bag that you don’t feel the need to throw away all the time, that’s really – if not a perfect solution – at least a great start. The key thing is to use a bag that you’d rather keep than toss.