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The big 5-0 ... time for a waste audit

By Karen Cannard

Karen Cannard
Karen Cannard

So, I hit the big 50 last week. Level fifty in the game of life. And as with many a milestone birthday, I found myself reminiscing.

Well, when I say reminiscing, it wasn’t just a compilation of my “best bits” or even a walk down memory lane visiting old haunts. This was more like a Dickensian visitation from the ghost of birthdays past.

It started with a random thought, out of nowhere, feeling curious about how much rubbish I had personally created in my lifetime.

Then before I knew it, I was totting up the stuff that had passed through my hands. I imagined it not as a rubbish heap but a gallery of my global consumption – most likely influenced by an arty Saturday in London summoning my inner Grayson Perry. Five decades of birthday presents and Christmases gone by, surrounded by a collection of everyday things consumed over the 18,263 days that make up my lifetime.

What would that look like? And how would it look if I imagined it in life-stages?

For instance, being born in 1968, I can’t imagine my waste footprint having been huge, at least not during the first part of my childhood. We were still in the era of washable nappies, a culture of hand-me-downs and a wooden spoon banging on a saucepan being the perfect entertainment for curious toddlers.

As I got older, birthdays began to be celebrated with the big stuff – a new swing, a Wendy house or a new bike (cue memories of the Raleigh Chopper) but we were still in a time where birthday presents from friends were a bar of chocolate or a packet of Spangles. Disposable party paraphernalia was beginning to develop a life of its own, with jelly served in paper dishes, squash in paper cups with paper straws and lucky bags being handed out to party guests as they left.

Then came the teenage years! And how the tide must have turned – with the freedom to buy sweets, fizzy drinks and crisps and much more. I also stumbled with hormonal uncertainty into the world of 80s music and fashion, spending pocket money and birthday money on short-lived new fashions from Chelsea Girl, or LPs from Woolworths, bringing them home in plastic bags, all of which are probably buried deep in landfill, somewhere near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.

During my student years I discovered Nottingham’s charity shops and bottle banks, which probably made a significant contribution to keeping the waste footprint of a student household lower than it could have been. But then, all those empty Pot Noodle pots and Beanfeast packets (before learning how to actually cook) would have been burned unceremoniously in the city’s incinerator to keep Nottingham’s shops and businesses toasty warm.

Then. It. Began. Graduation and my first job. Smart clothing. Learning to drive. New car. Bookshops. Moving in with boyfriend. Cheap furniture. First house and mortgage. New jobs. New fashions. New clothes. Decorating. Gardening.Ornaments. Getting married. Moving house. Children. Nappies. Clothes for little people. Clothes for growing little people. Toys, toys, toys, toys, toys, toys – and years of plastic gift cards.

That’s 1989-2008 in one small, frenetic paragraph, covering two decades of stuff that has been bought, dumped and replaced at a speed of consumption that I’d never experienced before.

Caught in the current heatwave, with temperatures reaching record levels around the world, I wonder how my lifestyle has contributed to global climate

change. It will have impacted for sure – has I discovered when researching how to reduce waste ahead of my 40th birthday ten years ago. Whether it was food or things, the strong message was that less is certainly more.

Slimming my bin was the challenge for my forties, hence why my imaginary gallery for the last ten years looks less rubbish than the decades before.

Seven days into my fifties, I wonder how my gallery would reflect the next decade. I doubt if it could ever be minimalist, but perhaps “A life even less cluttered” would be a good start.

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