Hugh's 'War on Waste' is great - but we need to grasp the bigger picture

Photo: Roderick Eime via Flickr (CC BY).
Photo: Roderick Eime via Flickr (CC BY).
Last week's 'War on Waste' - throwaway coffee cups were the deserving target - was an exemplar of effective single-issue campaigning by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. But the answers to our waste problems go way beyond recycling. We must begin to plan a societal transition to a post-consumer culture of caring, sharing, and knowing when we have enough.
The global neoliberal capitalist economy allows and even celebrates waste. It is not just an unfortunate byproduct of the economy, but a systemic issue that needs to be addressed as such as we enter a period of unprecedented resource scarcity.

Watching the third episode of Hugh's War on Waste recently, I felt - as I did with the previous two - a combination of appalled shock at the eye-watering levels of waste in the UK, and encouragement at the public's response to Hugh's campaigns.

It seems that as a nation, we hate waste - and this must be good news. But my overriding feeling watching all three episodes was frustration.

In spite of his undeniable tenacity and talent for campaigning, Hugh's war is only ever a war on the symptoms - the most obvious manifestations - of a waste culture, never the causes. And remarkably, the war is waged without ever actually defining the enemy.

And so, throughout the shows, I am left asking: what exactly is waste, and what is it about that we don't like about it? A truism in the sustainability world claims that that 'waste is just a resource that's in the wrong place'. This is a helpful way to think about landfill: a mass grave of potential resources, hidden from use.

Recycling is perhaps the most commonly perceived way to extrapolate useful resources from defunct products, or to put it another way, to put the resources in their proper place again. It follows then, that recycling is an ideal antidote to waste, right? Well, not really! This is because of the considerable energy and emissions of the recycling process, from transporting waste and recovered material, to the processes themselves.

As it becomes clear that waste avoidance is not just a matter of relocating resources, another definition of waste emerges: the unnecessary use of something valuable, that is, resources - which could be a range of things commonly taken for granted, like water, precious metals, invaluable topsoil, pollinators, energy, hospitable climate and safe air.

This helps us to make sense of the 'three Rs' - reduce, reuse, recycle - which adage reminds us that it is far preferable to consume less stuff in the first place; the next best option is to re-use (eg give or buy from charity shops, carboot sales), and then to recycle. We could also squeeze in upcycling, which is changing the form, without having to break down into basic materials, and falls between reuse and recycle.

The real problem is rampant consumerism

This definition leaves us with some hard truths. If we really don't like waste, and we are serious about clamping down on it, we must also be willing to take a cold look at our rapid consumerist practices - be it lifestyle shopping; unseasonal, air-freight vegetables; meat; or flying, to name but a few.

When 'Hugh's War on Waste' considered clothing and textiles back in the autumn, it focussed solely on the mountains of old, last season, unfit clothing that is thrown away to landfill each year. The elephant in the room went unnamed however: a neoliberal economy and culture whose life-blood is rampant consumerism.

The global neoliberal capitalist economy allows and even celebrates waste. It is not just an unfortunate byproduct of the economy, but a systemic issue that needs to be addressed as such as we enter a period of unprecedented resource scarcity.

And waste is an intrinsic design principle of consumerist products - they are cheap to buy and badly made, or destined to become rapidly outmoded - because this is what keeps the economy growing (and whether that is desirable is extremely dubious).

The global neoliberal capitalist economy allows and even celebrates waste, just as it does the cheap, unregulated, bonded, dangerous, often child labour, and the rapacious destruction of the ecosphere - from water and climate, to soils and land grabs - that are necessary ingredients in keeping the carousel of disposable consumer goods spinning.

In other words - waste is not just an unfortunate byproduct of the economy, but a systemic issue that needs to be addressed as such. Taking a systemic look at the economic drivers of waste may also inspire a radical rethink about what waste really is, and what counts as waste.

A new culture of 'enoughness'

We may think, for example, that that childhoods spent in factories and not in education and play are wasted; or that the lives of 56 billion farmed animals who are killed each year are wasted; or that the millions of lives that will be lost to climate change in the coming decades will be wasted.

In each of the cases the driving factors of the wastage is unnecessary - we don't need to constantly buy cheap clothes, we don't need to eat meet, we don't need to let runaway climate change happen. If the public, who have been so inspired by Hugh's campaigns so far, were shown waste in these terms - that is, the true scale of the waste issue - then perhaps we might really start to see some change.

We are entering a period of unprecedented scarcity, in which too many people will vie for access to vital, but fatally depleted reserves of water and topsoil, on too little land (as the sea rises) and few climatically hospitable zones (as global temperatures rise).

To give existing young people, and any future generations a fighting chance, we must collectively undertake a serious rethink of what we can fairly, ethically be deemed 'necessary use'. It is my feeling that doing so will require developing a notion of 'enoughness': of contentment to self-limit our consumption by eschewing greed and embracing generosity - the ethic of caring and sharing.

I'm really excited by the kind of popular influence that Hugh's public educating and campaigning on these vital issues can command, but I am concerned about the hitherto lack of nuance in his 'War on Waste'.

If Hugh is bold enough to confront the systemic nature of this pernicious enemy, and take a radical look as what waste really means as his 'War on Waste' battles on, I'm hopeful that his campaign could make a real difference.



Sam Earle is a post-grad student at the University of East Anglia, working on developing a philosophical alternative to 'sustainability' thinking.

More from this author