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The amount of waste we create often brings regret. The Japanese have built a philosophy around reducing this clutter, not out of guilt, but rather in a pursuit of fun and expression.
Mottainai. You’ve felt it, even if you haven’t heard of it.
It’s that feeling that makes you clean every morsel off your plate, despite your stomach being on the verge of rupture. The agitation you experience when you chuck out those veggies that have spent the last month evolving into a new species in the bottom of your fridge. The thing that made you keep that never-worn purple frilly blouse, because it’s still good.
In Japanese, there’s a word to describe the feeling of regret from waste: mottainai. It’s the concept at the heart of a wonderful art form that sees practitioners transform old broken objects into works of art. I discovered it earlier this year when I made a video with Guy Keulemans, researcher at UNSW Art & Design, and himself a practitioner of “transformative repair”.
And then something strange happened.
I began to experience mottainai at home. I threw away the plastic bag my Brussels sprouts came in. Or when I discarded my takeaway morning latte cup. Peak mottainai came when I procured a coveted new slow cooker, even though the old one still worked.
I wanted to reduce this experience of mottainai, but where to begin? Was a KeepCup enough? I was an inner-west apartment-dwelling professional, so running away to a tumeric painted commune seemed like an extreme solution.
The problem seems too big to solve
The problem of waste in the Western world is so enormous that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are helpless to do anything about it. Those brave souls who do decide to tackle their waste footprint head-on are vilified for the high crime of failing to quit toilet paper, or driving, or having their environmentally conscious sanitaries air-mailed to their front door.
“One of the things that happens among friends,” Guy says, “is someone will say, ‘the council should do more about, say, recycling,’ and their friends will accuse them of hypocrisy. They’ll say ‘but you drive,’ or ‘you use plastic,’ and use this argument that if there’s any aspect of your life that involves waste, you don’t have a right to be critical of a system that encourages, even demands waste.”
Because the systems of consumerism are the biggest players in the waste game, evidence suggests that the strongest action a person can take is to get involved in politics and address those systems directly. Finding an alternative to single-use plastic is a good start, but campaigning retail giants to take action is even more powerful.
There’s a better motivation than guilt
Like me, mottainai might be the jumping-off-point in a person’s move towards a low-waste lifestyle, but if the only motivator is less guilt, this movement is going to last about as long as the fad for high-heeled sneakers. Let’s face it, my Brussels sprouts packet didn’t exactly keep me awake at night.
“Instead of seeing a broken object as a nexus of guilt and a problem that needs to be solved,” says Guy, “rather you can view it as an opportunity to make a creative expression. To make it better, to make it more fun.”
This shift in paradigm is reflected in the growing number of online personalities who are “gamifying” their zero-waste ambitions. From blogger Kathryn Kellogg, whose contribution to landfill in one year can fit into a jar, to The Guardian’s Emily Barr, who documented her attempt to waste no plastic over a week, zero-wasters are clearly getting more than just a relief from a light feeling of guilt. They’re enjoying themselves. And that’s key to making changes that last.
Waste happens when we buy something – not when we throw it out
With the help of sites like buymeonce.com, I’ve started to renew my fast-fashion wardrobe with pieces that will last for years, and to repair, rather than replace. We’re taking the same approach with our kitchenware, linen and even furniture. It’s actually been a lot of fun. Having fewer things of higher quality feels good, and there are unexpected side effects, like less time spent in shops, less cleaning, and a whole lot fewer trips to the charity clothing bins. But I’m the first to admit that quality costs more than the retail-chain alternative.
“I have the same problem myself,” Guy says. “I’m on an academic salary with two kids… I’m not rich. And yet I’m the one what will save up to get the fine merino wool shirt instead of the synthetic, petrochemical one, because in the long run, I think it’s worth it.”
Budgeting, then saving for it and waiting, becomes part of the pleasure of buying a new item. “It comes down to trying to make a decision that is typically considered ‘povo’ as being aesthetically, and ascetically pleasing.”