Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Paging Mr. Scrooge

Here's a Christmas thought: Americans aren't just spendthrifts--they're wasteful, which is even worse.
It's one thing for an entire nation to have a negative savings rate--spending more than its income--and quite another to have wasted much of that money on junk which is thrown away.

We share refuse and recycling facilities with college students attending one of the premiere public universities in the world. Many are from overseas, many are U.S.-born. If I didn't know better, I would assume such bright, well-educated young idealistic souls would be avid recyclers and careful with their money (or their parents' money).

Au contraire. The volume of complete, utterly shameless waste has staggered us. Just to recount recent throwaways which could have been given away with extremely modest effort: three unopened bags of Halloween candy; new untouched box of expensive Tazo tea; apparently new shoes; barely used or new T-shirts. The list goes on and on.

Over the years, we have noted that Europeans, Asians and first-generation students tend to waste less, while young American-born students (2nd generation and up) of all ethnicities, races and religions are in aggregate stupendously wasteful: of food, and everything else.

Yes, students are busy, especially those who hold jobs, too; but would it have been any extra work to carry the new candy to campus and drop it off at the department office, where it could have been placed in a bowl? Or how about walking an extra block to drop it off at the food bank? As for the new shoes and shirts, there is a Salvation Army store three blocks from campus. There's even an easier way to give stuff away in college towns: just place the shoes, etc. on the curb instead of in the trash.

Clearly, throwing stuff away is ingrained in Americans as the default setting of life. It simply doesn't occur to many Americans to recycle or make an effort to give away perfectly good items. Why? Because disposing of stuff in the trash apparently makes economic sense: Everything is just too cheap to bother with.

Many people in the U.S. spend perhaps 5% or 10% of their income on food; even with flour doubling in price, it's still ridiculously cheap. In countries where 50% or more of the family income is spent on food, you can be sure little is wasted.

Ditto for shoes, clothing, electronics, Ikea furniture, gasoline, and on and on: it's so cheap, it makes no sense to conserve it. And so we waste it, freely and easily and without a second thought. Even though there's a recycling bin a few feet away, plastic bottles, aluminum cans and glass containers are placed in the trash bin. You'd think recycling was some extraordinary effort, or something so new that college students hadn't yet grasped the concept. Yet the concept has been around for 37 years--and the concept of it being shameful to waste has been around much, much longer.

To return to the difference between spending money you don't have and wasting money you don't have: If every American family which spent beyond its means had purchased, say, solid oak furniture instead of a big-screen TV and Ikea particle-board garbage "furniture", then in 50 or even 100 years, that solid oak furniture would still be serving someone somewhere.

But alas, the TV will be in the dump in a few years, as will the rusty BBQ grill, the rusty cheap bicycle, the collapsed Ikea particle board, and virtually everything else Americans have borrowed to buy in the past debt-fueled decade of "prosperity," including entire shoddily-constructed houses.

It almost goes without saying that the food you will find tossed in the trash in the U.S. is never the chips or snacks or frozen convenience food: it's always the fresh food which is tossed out, untouched and uneaten.

Last night I made a pretty decent ratatouille (feeds four) for a few dollars. The beautiful zucchini was from our garden, the beautiful eggplant from a bag of five on sale for a dollar or so, and the onion and garlic were purchased at an ethnic market (we shop at Mexican, Indian, Asian and Halal markets) for what amounts to a few dimes each. The French feta cheese generously sprinkled on top at serving cost another few dimes. The whole wheat bread, a dime or so per slice.

The total cost of this meal was a few dollars, even if you bought the zucchini. And yet the media is filled with stories about how expensive real food is now, and how fast food is cheaper than real food. Are we truly this insane? Last time I checked, a "value meal" at a fast food outlet costs about $4. Four meals adds up to $16--a far cry from $2-$3 for a delicious and healthy ratatouille which would set you back $12+ per serving in a restaurant.

What really troubles me is the value of "waste not want not" has been largely lost in our culture. (The Japanese phrase is "motainai.") The sentiment that it is wrong or even sinful to waste, especially food, is not unique to any one culture; it arose from a life of scarcity. Now that everything is so cheap, we can throw away and waste resources at a prodigious rate because it still makes "economic sense" not to bother with conservation or careful use of resources.

If trash was hauled off and paid for by the pound, would people start recycling more? Perhaps. When gasoline is $5/gallon, will people start conserving it? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Perhaps profligacy is so deeply embedded in American culture that we as a people will only whine about the "high cost" of things as we struggle to pull our overloaded trash bins to the curb, alongside the dead TVs and broken shelving awaiting delivery to the landfill. As we hurry off to buy a "cheap" fast-food meal, having left a binful of fruit and vegetables rotting in the garbage, we'll focus our most strident complaints on the high cost of food, not on what we have wasted so needlessly and recklessly.

Holiday gift bonanza:

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