I picked up the card packaging to bin it – but then noticed that Bereket was very carefully putting every single bit of the case and its contents back in the plastic cover it came in. He was keeping what I was going to chuck.
Bereket is a young boy who lives in an orphanage in Ethiopia. I was colouring in a dinosaur with him a few days ago – a wooden dinosaur that he loved. And with it came plastic and cardboard that were redundant. But it was his and he was going to keep it.
He took me on a tour of his new home – his is a bed squashed between mounds of laundry generated by the 30- odd children and their caretakers who live there – and he was beaming. He was so happy to be in such a wonderful place with a corner of his own. A month ago he was in a government orphanage, where he’d been for the past three of his five years of life. He loves it where he is now and doesn’t want to leave. We can only imagine what he must have come from.
But that’s a different story. Today we’re talking about consumption.
I consider myself to be quite good about reusing things. At home I have boxes that house all manner of cutouts – Christmas cards, images from magazines, pieces of coloured paper – one man’s trash is this woman’s treasure trove for making unique, personalised cards and generally having creative fun. My home help may think I am the meanest and strangest person on the block. She has been taught not to have water gushing out when a less frenzied flow will do, or throw anything away that can be put to good use, often with accompanied explanations of how we live in a desert, the miracle of modern-day life, and my wish to eat chemical-free food.
Even the soap that goes down the drain counts as a poison that ends up invading our bodies. We reuse aluminium foil when possible. And boy do I feel vindicated when I read that Americans alone now throw away enough aluminium to duplicate the full commercial air fleet of the United States.
And so I was taken aback by my own default mode that afternoon with Bereket. Who knows when he was last given something of his very own? And boy was he going to keep every bit of it.
What a super reminder of what we do with stuff, and how much ends up thrown away when it doesn’t need to be.
At the end of last year, the Director of Dubai Municipality’s waste management department said that each person living in the emirate generated on average 2.3 kilograms of rubbish every day. That is more than the Americans’ all-consumer lifestyle – their output is 2kg of waste per day. Just to get a feel for how much this is, if we used the US’s waste to form a gravity-defying line of filled rubbish lorries, they would reach the moon.
We are not the worst offenders though – it turns out that Mexicans generate 30 per cent more waste than Americans, overtaking us in the process.
It’s so much easier just throwing things away though, isn’t it? If you decide not to, then you must make other decisions too – like where and how to store it, how to use it, what else you need to keep to make that thing you just thought of. It’s a hassle.
But it’s an important hassle.
In case you missed it, June 5 was World Environment Day, and the United Nations asked us to learn to consume with care so we can preserve our limited natural resources and future quality of life.
Maybe you feel you are powerless and will have no effect. “What difference will I make?” is an often-heard reason – read: excuse – for not bothering with these hassly green alternative things.
But everything is connected. And this holy month of giving and gratitude is the perfect time for us to reframe our mindset and our actions – to think about sharing, saving and what we do with our stuff.
While writing this I received an email from my son’s school asking for shoes that no longer fit to be donated to children in need through the Ajman-based Al Hemam Centre for Training. Their message reminds us that there are children right here in the UAE whose families cannot afford to buy them new school shoes. My son’s old ones would become someone else’s brand- new ones.
How many things will you throw away today? This week? How much can be reused or given away?
Remember, it’s only waste when you waste it. Little Bereket would love to have it if you don’t.
Nima Abu Wardeh is the founder of the personal finance website cashy.me. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.