Zero Waste Ambassador Blog: Comparing the Concept of “Waste” across Cultures

Comparing the Concept of “Waste” across Cultures

By Layth Mattar, Senior in Emory College, Arabic and Biology double-major 

When I was younger, especially before the Arab Spring, I would spend my summers in Egypt living between the homes of my grandparents. A shared characteristic of their homes was that they were ornately decorated with antiques, all of which were either purchased from merchants during their travels, given to them as gifts, or handed down from previous generations. Things in their homes had a story and were valued. Inevitably things broke as we played in the house, but that was seldom the end of that object’s life. I attribute this largely to a cultural difference between Egypt and the United States; in Egypt, it is much more common to repair objects rather than to buy new ones, and due to prevalent crafts, it’s almost always cheaper too. 

In the United States, people tend to resort to throwing away old objects rather than fixing them. For many, as soon as something breaks, they decide it’s easier to buy a new one rather than repair the damage. This throw-away culture has been formed by both the consumer and the producer. The fast-paced lifestyle in the United States makes it more difficult for the average person to sit down and repair their broken items, especially if one just like it is available at the store brand new. Similarly, producers benefit from us buying their product again, which creates a cycle of endless consumerism.

In Egypt, endless cycles of brand-new products and consumption are not financially feasible. If something is broken in Egypt, it is fixed or repurposed, rather than thrown away. For example, Cairo is a sprawling metropolis consistently undergoing development and then redevelopment, and destruction often paves the way for construction and reconstruction. Sometimes, an old building needs to be torn down. However, it is not always destroyed in one large event, but is taken apart piece by piece, and those pieces are later reformed into unique individual items. If a building has spectacular and ornate window sills, instead of losing them to the destruction of the building, those windowsills will be reclaimed into glass topped coffee tables. In a similar fashion to old European practices, stone blocks taken from older buildings can easily and are often reused to create new buildings.

I have tried to carry these values over into my lifestyle here in America. I am by no means an artisanal individual, but when something of mine breaks the first thing I do is try to see if I can repair it myself. For instance, a common occurrence for me and my family is that the legs of our chairs and tables break or chip. This causes instability, which leads to intense irritability, as I am sure many of you can relate, and decreases the overall aesthetic of the furniture. But these are issues that can be easily solved. A broken wooden leg can be fixed with wood glue, salt, and time, and an unstable table can be fixed with a furniture slider.

The best part about all of these repairs is that if you really cannot figure out how to resolve an issue you’re dealing with, someone on the internet probably has dealt with, solved, and authored a fantastic guide on how to fix it while saving you money and time. The trades that make Egyptians and other similar cultures so efficient regarding material goods are skills that are easy to learn, but difficult to master. And the best part, the basics of any skill can be learned through a one-day binge on YouTube and supplies can easily be found at hardware or craft stores. This may seem expensive and time consuming, but with tiny amounts of knowhow and small investments, the longevity of material items such as cars, furniture, decorative pieces, and functional pieces can be extended by years. You may even find a new hobby.

Reusing and repurposing old items is more than just good for your wallet, it is necessary for our planet. Landfills and trash islands are growing, and the side effects of producing mountains of material are hurting already marginalized communities and destroying habitats. The United States needs to adopt a culture that does not categorize so many salvageable things as waste. A value needs to be placed on reusing and repurposing rather than buying new. The simple maintenance of material items accomplishes three major things: it keeps more cash in your wallet, reduces consumer contributions to a throw-away culture, and gives one the satisfaction and pride that comes along with hands-on projects.

Please note, this blog only comes from my experience in Egypt and a few other Arab countries I have visited and in which I have lived. I would like to say that what I have described is only a facet of their cultures and should not be applied as an overarching generalization. With that said, the lessons that can be drawn from this reflection are still lessons that can help us all reduce our demand for new, finite materials by reducing our ties to the unsustainable production processes that use them.

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