1001 Water- and waste-wise ways: The Great Consumer Frenzy
Picture chosen for its soothing qualities: taken on a Thanksgiving weekend I spent in a tiny New England village three years ago.

Picture chosen for its soothing qualities: taken on a Thanksgiving weekend I spent in a tiny New England village three years ago.

So it’s Black Friday (I understand the genesis of the name, but it doesn’t make it any less unfortunate, if not downright tasteless), and all over the world, credit cards are melting.

I’ll never forget my first encounter with Black Friday (although it wasn’t yet called that) in the US. I had spent Thanksgiving with American friends in the wilds of a tiny exquisite island off the coast of Maine, and three of us were driving back to Massachusetts. Stopping for petrol, we noticed a gift “outlet store” on the far side of the freeway — a factory shop big enough to house planes in. Even bigger was the parking lot, jammed as far as the eye could see, with literally thousands of shoppers streaming in. Shuttle buses were running from one end to the other to scoop up those daunted by the thought of having to walk a few hundred yards. Special golf carts carried the elderly and the obese. Synthetic perfume from countless scented candles wafted across the highway. My friends explained to me that the day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season — and this was what “open season” in America looked like.

In past years, I’ve frothed about how we should boycott yet another commercial calendar event imported from the US and shoehorned into our lifestyles and cultures. But in the last few days, I’ve found myself trawling the web, thinking “Maybe it might be a good day to replace the 25-year-old mattress that’s making my back ache.” For those on tight budgets who’ve been saving to replace an elderly household appliance like a fridge or stove, Black Friday might indeed be very useful.

But the frenzy to buy, buy, buy stuff, almost all of it on credit, seems a particularly stark sort of madness in the light of the research I’m doing on waste. The more I read, the more my hair stands on end as I see the connections between the global shift of capitalist production from thrift to a throwaway consumer culture — and trashing the planet. “Jobs!” “Growth!” “The economy!” shriek the politicians and the corporates, bent on extracting a few measly years of profit at any cost from unique, life-sustaining ecosystems that have developed over millennia, and which will take centuries to heal from our depredations. Worse, so few of the projects dangled in front of us as “job creation” do what they promise: offer secure employment at decent wages and with safe working conditions, other than for a small group at the top.

But this always happens: the more I look for handy tips on recycling and waste-free living, the more my research takes me up against a bleak and often terrifying coalface, with flocks of canaries as far as the eye can see shrieking “Danger! Danger! STOP THIS BEFORE WE ALL DIE HORRIBLY!” At which my blood pressure soars and I have to go for a walk and watch swallows wheeling through clouds of midges and evening light pouring honey all over the mountains. Which takes me back to the determination to do something, anything, so that the next generation actually has breathable air.

Meanwhile, I was struck by a phrase I found that described the ways in which we relate to and store stuff: “organised hoarding”. And it occurred to me that one way to change Black Friday into Green Friday would be to take an hour today to clear out our cupboards — of stuff we don’t need or haven’t used in a while. Then another half-hour on the web researching local charities and NPOs that will come and haul our goods away. The good folk at the Saartjie Baartman Centre tell me that they take ANYTHING. Any NPO that has clothing, bric-a-brac or book stores will be thrilled if you take them a carload of stuff that’s literally a waste of your space: just in my neighbourbood, there’s TEARS, Help The Rural Child, hospice shops and more. And I always like to give Oasis a mention — they recycle AND provide employment for intellectually disabled adults (plus their bakery in Imam Haron Road sells great chocolate shortbread).

Stop and take some time to think today. By all means, get your kids’ sports equipment and uniforms for next year if buying them today will truly save your pennies. But please consider getting rid of stuff, instead of buying more and more and more more more more. And that goes for that consumer nightmare impatiently revving its engines off-stage — Christmas. But that’s a topic for another blog. Now please excuse me: I’m going to check mattress prices online.

Another soothing pic from a Maine Thanksgiving.

Another soothing pic from a Maine Thanksgiving.

Helen Moffett
1001 Water- and waste-wise ways: What's in your backyard?
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Well, we skipped into summer snapping our fingers at all the green around us, and have been brought up short: two weeks of brutal heatwave in October — before the hot, dry season even gets under way — has turned that green right back to an all-too familiar yellow and brown. My lush veggie garden is literally dying under my nose, and the rustling rocket I harvest daily has gone tough and stringy overnight. The dams have been whacked by high evaporation rates, and any hopes of slightly relaxed water restrictions (like shifting from 50 to 70 litres per person per day) have been dashed. Plus Cape Town’s water use is creeping up — we need to go in the opposite direction, good people!

By now we all know what to do, and yes, we’re a bit water-weary: I’ve been (almost) off the water grid for ten months, and sometimes I just want to fill the kitchen sink with a tap, and take a shower that doesn’t involve buckets and pressure sprayers and kettles. But we can’t look backwards, and hopefully our worst water-wasting habits (flushing with drinking water — shudder) are behind us for good.

Meanwhile, if ever we needed a stark and horrifying reminder that we have a planet to save and climate catastrophe right on our doorstep, the Garden Route and its mountains have been burning all week in a terrifying conflagration, with no respite. Lives have been lost, along with livelihoods and homes. And we have months of the worst kind of weather for fires and fighting them still ahead of us. (I’ve been trying to find out where one can make donations, but Google is not being its usual helpful self. When in doubt, give to Gift of the Givers, a wonderful NPO that always seems to be where the need is greatest.)

As you know, I’ve been thinking aloud here about what we can do as individuals when the problems are so vast and need such massive structural and economic transformation before we can even stumble towards solutions. And it comes back to the same mantra as always: think globally, act locally.

In an effort to minimise waste — especially plastic waste, which doesn’t biodegrade, can’t be safely burned, and ends up choking our seas — I’ve been looking around my own backyard. Buying produce and goods with minimal packaging, and which create jobs right here in my neighbourhood, as well as offering different and alternative economic models, even on a tiny scale, seems one small way to help. It also feels more humanising, at least to me, than supermarkets and malls.

So here are some small suggestions for the South Peninsula: tips on similar useful spots and markets elsewhere in Cape Town (and the country) gratefully received.

I’m delighted to see that the Waste-free Market under the Glencairn Hotel seems to be up and running again: last summer, this was a favourite place to buy veggies, nuts, pasta, spices, household cleaners and other goodies scooped out from vast plastic drums and glass jars, on a BYOC (bring-your-own-container) model. I’d take a basket of empty Tupperwares and paper packets, and bring them home full. I haven’t been since they’ve re-opened, but will do so and report back.

Look, Ma, no polystyrene, no clingwrap.

Look, Ma, no polystyrene, no clingwrap.

One spot I recommend is the new Neighbourhood Farms shop at Fish Hoek Hospital: drive down past the main hospital gates and along Paris Road, and you’ll find the shade tents protecting lettuces in every shade of green and red, a row of vast raintanks, and a neat wooden one-roomed shop. Monday is a good day to get the freshest produce, I’m told. The prices are reasonable, but what I found most helpful was this poster, explaining (in a nutshell) why growing food on a vast scale for profit isn’t a good strategy, not even for the farmers co-opted into this system.

Poster on the wall at the Neighbourhood Farms shop at Fish Hoek hospital. Would love to credit whoever wrote this.

Poster on the wall at the Neighbourhood Farms shop at Fish Hoek hospital. Would love to credit whoever wrote this.

And the next poster explains more about what I see as an alternative way of being in this broken world: food is not a luxury. Healthy food, in particular, should NOT be a luxury. Jobs should not be perks for the lucky few. To produce food primarily for purposes of profit — to enrich shareholders — seems insane. Obviously a certain amount of start-up capital is needed, and there needs to be enough capital generated to maintain and update infrastructure, and invest in new infrastructure (such as more raintanks). But surely we need to be turning to systems in which money flows through enterprises like these, rather than accumulating in them like sludge? (If this sounds naive, blame my background in indie publishing, where it feels like we all pass round the same small pile of dosh to each other, and no one ever expects to get rich.)

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Something incredibly sensible about this little shop: no cash. You can pay only with a debit or credit card. Et voila, no security hassles or anxiety about theft. I also spotted that pensioners get a ten per cent discount on the fruit and veggies.

Living in Noordhoek, I know there are other local places and opportunities to try a combination of waste-saving, healthy shopping styles: ordering organic boxes, picking your own veg, and more, but let’s save further reports for another day. Tell me all about your favourite waste-wise markets or shopping spots — and remember that this can even be the local branch of a big chain, if they sell their goods loose and encourage you to bring in your own bags and packets.

Helen Moffett
1001 Water- and waste-wise ways: It's complicated
Saving the planet, saving water: can we do it solo?

Saving the planet, saving water: can we do it solo?

Time I sent up a signal from deep within the rabbit warren, where I’ve been researching waste, and effective ways of combating the problems it causes. It’s fascinating, but extremely tricky to boil down into blogs, much less tips, partly because of all the contradictions.

On the one hand, the middle classes are constantly being told what steps they can take as individuals to reduce not just waste, but their footprint on our groaning, battered planet (our ONLY viable home). But then there’s a whole bunch of research that says that individual efforts count for nothing, given that only about a hundred big corporations are responsible for 70% of carbon emissions. And that at this crucial tipping point we’ve reached, only drastic, immediate action by governments around the world can save us from ever-increasingly catastrophic climate change — and we can all see that happening, right? * sarcasm font * GLOOM.

There’s the earnest (and IMO, important) mantra Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, Repurpose. But then there are the voices who say this is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I LOVED this challenging article by Mark Boyle, who proposes “resist, revolt, rewild” instead: explaining why he has jumped off the grid, he writes: “I’m now more interested in keeping the best of the old ways alive, preserving a link from our ancient past – and its crafts, perspectives, stories – into our future, so that when the industrial apparatus collapses under the weight of its own junk, these long-serving ways can point us towards the back roads home.” Read the entire piece — it’s a riveting alternative (very alternative) perspective, plus it’s so NB I’ve linked it twice. And to cheer you up, here’s a delightful piece on rewilding in the UK by Patrick Barkham — and another controversial one by George Monbiot, which I like because it suggests a way through the bleakness. (Who can tell me about similar local projects?)

Then there’s the morality of cheerily suggesting all sorts of “mend and make do” tips, when the poor citizens of this country and indeed the globe already practice these through sheer necessity and find no pleasure or satisfaction in them.

This poster sums things up rather nicely. It appears the artist is  Max Temkin.  No copyright infringement intended.

This poster sums things up rather nicely. It appears the artist is Max Temkin. No copyright infringement intended.

Focusing on reducing plastic waste in particular is also a lot more complicated than it seems: all the alternatives need to be researched. So if we’re replacing plastic with paper, bamboo, glass, cloth — what are the environmental impacts of these substitutes? And close scrutiny of packaging (and Lordie, but almost everything is over-packaged) brings into focus that products are presented and packaged for the convenience of the vast chains that flog them to us. And, as many eco-warriors have insisted, the pressure needs to be put on manufacturers to stop this at source, rather than relying on us to recycle them at the end of the chain.

Everything is fraught: we need to eat less meat (and to stop consuming misery meat), sure: but while veganism may be the humane option, it’s not always the most environmentally friendly one in semi-arid and arid countries where humans rely on ruminants to process grass and tough vegetation into protein. (Plus, see Boyle’s interesting points above — let me link that crucial piece again.) And how can we possibly exhort poor people to eat more expensive food? Which takes us right back to the heart of the problem: the systems that produce our food, fuel our economies and organise our labour forces are unsustainable, alienating and inhumane in the first place. I keep reaching this point in my research, at which I just want to flop down and put my head between my knees.

So I’ve been doing what always helps when I’m stuck on a project: talking to people. As I wailed to a friend that using paper instead of plastic means thinking about how that paper was manufactured, how much water was used, how best to recycle it later, etc, she pointed out that a paper bag doesn’t end up in the ocean — and if it does, it’s unlikely to choke a turtle to death or pollute someone else’s shoreline.

Another friend and I thrashed through a series of guidelines for plastic replacements, and in fact for ALL the goods we buy: 1) Is it made from a renewable resource? 2) Is it biodegradable, or can it be easily and cheaply recycled? 3) Is it durable — a piece you’ll keep and use for years if not decades, perhaps even as an heirloom? (Note that nothing plastic passes Test #1.)

I think that’s a useful start, and we have to start somewhere. To return to my first conundrum, can individuals make a difference? My thinking is yes and no. We need corporations to stop their glassy-eyed, insane, headlong pursuit of profit at all costs; we need governments to rein them in, instead of allowing them to pillage and pollute; we need investment and infrastructure in decent, safe public transport (manic laughter) and energy from renewable and clean sources; in fact, we need brand-new economic models that involve income cycling through an industry rather than accumulating; and these projects are big and daunting, and it’s hard to see how, for instance, boycotting single-use plastics will have an impact.

But shrugging our shoulders and continuing on our merry wasteful ways isn’t an option. The air we breathe and the water we drink, the food we eat (which affects our health and our children’s health for generations to come) depend on us making strong efforts to change our consumptive (pun intended) ways. When I see a toddler scampering to the fridge in the deli and tugging out a Coke bottle while his yummy mummy smiles proudly, when I see able-bodied adults demanding plastic straws to drink water (but leaving their glasses half-drunk), I realise how much there is that individuals can do, and still need to do. And many are making strenuous efforts, with all sorts of positive spin-offs, not least job creation. Of which more in future blogs.

Capetonians learned the lesson of individual effort when we helped head off Day Zero and stopped our taps running dry in the nick of time. And given that the lush green of winter has already faded to yellow and grey, that we’re sweltering in a heatwave for the second week in a row, with fires breaking out everywhere, from townships to rural areas — and it’s not even November yet and we have FIVE MONTHS OF SUMMER AND FIRE SEASON AHEAD — we need to go on making a difference at a personal level. So to all of us who’ve been letting our water use creep up: time to get back to our water-wise ways. And by now we’re old hands.


Helen Moffett
1001 Water- and waste-wise ways: Of ripples and rabbit-holes
Green. Bath. Bliss.

Green. Bath. Bliss.

So much I want to say as I research the topic of waste while keeping a beady eye on watery matters. Have been trying to write a blog for weeks and it keeps turning into patchwork. Or a wildly messy tapestry of one unfinished thread after another. This is not a bad reflection of my current reality, as one of the internet rabbit-holes my research has had me plunge into is the world of sewing as a form of re-using and recycling (not to mention creativity). Who knew there were that many Facebook groups just on making one’s own clothes? And that’s just one teeny aspect of a massive global culture of mending and making do, of off-grid and zero-waste living. There are tens of thousands of tips out there!

So let me step back, take a breath and say this: haven’t the winter rains in the Western Cape been a benison? I only wish more would fall in the still drought-stricken Karoo and Eastern Cape. The rainfall here these last two months has been average only, for this time of year, but it’s been exactly the right kind of rain: frequent, soft, soaking, and even a little in the form of snow — good for restoring groundwater and slow run-off.

I’m trying not to get too comfortable — the grand-daddy of Cape Town’s dams, Theewaterskloof, is still only 54% full, but the others are literally brimming. We have enough to get through the summer (including the agricultural sector, which has taken a hammering), although for complete comfort we need the dams another 5% full. But no exhaling yet: we have enough for THIS SUMMER. That’s it. None of the water-wise skills learned by Cape Town’s comfortable classes will be wasted (ha), as we have no idea what the future holds — but we have learned how vulnerable we are — and also, how quickly we can adapt. That’s going to be useful.

But it’s impossible not to be bewitched by the effect of standard old winter rain on the battered and desiccated Cape after three bone-dry winters and parching summers. Here are some amateur photos taken by me close to where I live: The first was taken in early April this year, and shows all that’s left of a channel of water separating an island from the lake’s edge. The next, taken four weeks later, shows the channel completely dried up, so much so that the island has an intruder-visitor, who was able to trot over dry-pawed: see if you can spot him. The last one is the same channel, back to usual size/depth.

That’s supposed to be a lake in the background, where the rather disconsolate blacksmith plovers are wandering around. (You can see them if you peer.)

That’s supposed to be a lake in the background, where the rather disconsolate blacksmith plovers are wandering around. (You can see them if you peer.)

A close-up of the “island”, now part of the main. Spot the non-resident.

A close-up of the “island”, now part of the main. Spot the non-resident.

And now for the same island, same channel, taken this past week:

I don’t think Mr Ginger Cat will be visiting this island again any time soon.

I don’t think Mr Ginger Cat will be visiting this island again any time soon.

And these photos make me think of the ripple effects of my current research on waste, and how enormous and complex the topic is. I charged out, rattling my sabre at plastic waste. Only to discover that while we are producing way too much, especially in the form of unnecessary packaging, plastic has its uses in that it reduces food waste (which — as we all know now, is not only wicked in a hungry world, but wastes massive amounts of water). Sample factoid: since fish started being packed in plastic rather than paper, incidences of food poisoning via fish have plummeted. Oh.

Then I started researching alternatives to plastic, only to discover that I needed to check the environmental impact of all those too, from bamboo toothbrushes to cloth shopping bags. (You don’t want to know about the amount of poisons the US spread on their cotton crops in the height of the DDT decades, for instance.)

So it’s all more complicated (and fascinating) than the water crisis, where we could roll up our sleeves and start collecting our grey water for flushing. The other fascinating (and infuriating thing) about trawling through the hundreds of groups on recycling and waste, especially those in the US, is seeing the same thing we learned from our water shortage: if you have an incredibly wasteful middle-class, then you can have an impact by changing their (our) behaviour. Cape Town was able to dramatically shrink its water usage because the wealthier among us were chucking spectacular amounts of drinking water onto lawns, into pools, and down toilets. Stop those three things, and voila: massive water savings. So if you’re consuming enormous amounts of takeaway foods and coffees, for instance — as is culturally the norm in much of North America — just stop or adapt those habits (travel mugs, tupperware), and it looks easy to reduce waste. But that’s assuming that you have those habits in the first place.

The wider issues are complex and interconnected (knotted in fact, with every issue demanding that we unpack our assumptions about the way the world works, hence the outward ripples, and the millions of tunnels opening off internet rabbit-holes) — thinking about all this is making my brain fizz and give off smoke. But it’s also very satisfying and I learn new stuff every day. I shall keep you posted.

Helen Moffett
1001 Water- and waste-wise ways: Make do and mend
Upton Hall, where the gardens were dug up for vegetables during the war.

Upton Hall, where the gardens were dug up for vegetables during the war.

A few years ago, I spent a glorious early summer’s month doing research for a novel that involved visiting a lot of stately homes and gardens in the UK (yes, a tough job). One place that has stayed with me has been Upton Hall, which was put at the disposal of the nation during World War II by its owners, Lord and Lady Bearsted, who were leading lights of the Anglo-Jewish community at the time.

What does this have to do with saving water and reducing the tons of plastic waste under which we are sinking? When I visited, there was a WWII exhibition called “Make Do And Mend”. It zoomed in on the very many ways that local people recycled, re-used, patched, darned, cobbled or just plain went without during those years of privation during the war and afterwards.

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Habits of thriftiness, the notion that waste was morally offensive, threaded through my childhood, and one result is that I get genuine pleasure out of making do and mending. I remember an acquaintance bumping into me as I dropped off favourite boots to be resoled: “What a pity you can’t afford new ones!” she said. I gawked at her as if she had landed from another planet.

Truth be told, I’m a bit obsessive about recycling — also bartering, community exchange programmes, eating something from my own veg garden every day, charity shops and the like. I love occasional trips to the local dump to drop off garden waste — last time I did went, I came home with six gorgeous wooden frames that were being disgorged from someone’s car boot.

But saddeningly, these habits of thrift have become quaint, something your granny did, in the face of rampant shiny capitalism that requires we buy something new every five minutes, and chuck it when it falls apart ten minutes later.

OK, maybe this is going too far.

OK, maybe this is going too far.

Unfortunately, it’s precisely this kind of magical thinking — that the planet can sustain infinite economic production — that has led to our current parlous position. I am starting to believe, or hope, that the next wave of job creation is going to involve precisely this kind of mending and making do.

Obviously, I do not want in any way to offend those for whom holes in a child’s school shoes spell financial disaster, or to pretend for a moment that poverty is fun. Yet many forms of recycling and re-using are enormously satisfying. For instance, I got a huge kick out of unpicking jerseys my mother had hand-dyed and knitted for me when I was a girl and reknitting them into scarves.

A great deal of thrifty practice is time-consuming — but it can also be sanity-saving. Simmering soups made with the cheapest fresh veg from the market and homegrown herbs, stitching up a drooping hem or darning a favourite pair of socks, decluttering and donating goods to shelters, running down to the shop for milk on a bike, bartering plants, picking blackberries from a hedge (to stick with the English nostalgia theme), sharing what you have: in a world that seems to grow nastier, colder and more crass by the minute, these small actions are good for our mental health. They’re also very, VERY good for the planet.

Some ideas for spring-cleaning, if you live in Cape Town: the Saartjie Baartman Centre is always desperate for children’s clothing and toiletries (families fleeing domestic violence are seldom able to pack); and the Oasis Recycling Centre is currently running a drive to collect second-hand goods. Dig around online to see what you can find for your locality.

Finally, a favourite tip; and a piece of good news. The tip: my friend Sindiwe taught me that to get every drop of juice out of a lemon, microwave it for 20 seconds before cutting it. The good news: when I went walking on the beach yesterday, FOUR people were picking up plastic waste as they wandered along. There is hope.

Squares into blankets: better than “Made in sweatshop” any day.

Squares into blankets: better than “Made in sweatshop” any day.

Helen Moffett