Positively connected

Readying the Wastebusters repair revolution trailer. PHOTO: GINA DEMPSTER
Readying the Wastebusters repair revolution trailer. PHOTO: GINA DEMPSTER
We can choose fun and live more lightly, writes Gina Dempster of Wastebusters.

Gina Dempster
Gina Dempster

One of the reasons I love working at Wastebusters is because you bump into all sorts of people just walking through the shop and yard each day. More than 126,000 customers visit our reuse shops each year, so it’s a great way to take the pulse of our Central Otago communities.

This year it feels as if stress levels are really escalating after two years of living with Covid. The latest transition to Orange has been a bit bumpy, as no-one has much capacity left to absorb new information or to deal with change. Fuses are short. Communities and families feel less stable than they used to. We’re all just hanging on by our fingertips.

It’s not an easy time to talk about positivity. But now, more than ever, we have to hang on to hope and connection to get us through. Because the reality is that we can’t let dealing with a global pandemic distract us from the changes we need to make to keep global heating under 1.5degC. And to do that, we’re going to need to find unexplored depths of hope, connection and positivity.

It’s quite normal to be overwhelmed by the environmental issues that we’re facing, with plastic pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change. They are so big they make you feel powerless as an individual. What can I do to stop this wave of waste and climate change? And from there it’s just a small jump to why even try? We might as well all just party on — extracting and throwing away resources and burning fossil fuels while we still can.

There’s a name for this feeling of being overwhelmed - eco-anxiety. We see it at Wastebusters, where our reuse staff are on the frontline of the waste that’s created by fast fashion and the make-use-throw away economic model. Our reuse team sort every donated item by hand and figure out whether (or not) someone might buy it from us and take it home for another use. The reality is that there’s very little second-hand demand for the super-super-cheap fast fashion clothing, which doesn’t wear or wash well and is only a few dollars to buy new. Seeing that reality every day wears you down.

Clothing is among the most popular items brought to our repair events, 
Clothing is among the most popular items brought to our repair events, where hems are fixed, buttons added and holes mended. PHOTO: ALEXIA JOHNSTON
Eco-anxiety stems from a sense of ourselves as a tiny individual, faced by global environmental issues. The reality is that we need to think and act collectively to find a way to live within the limits of our planet. Drawing boundaries around ourselves and our countries doesn’t work when we are talking about weather and oceans. Connection is not only fundamental to our sense of wellbeing, as we all learnt first-hand during lockdown. It’s also critical to our ability to look after the planet, and future generations.

We all have power as individuals, but by connecting with others, we amplify it like putting light-bulbs on an electrical circuit. That’s why Wastebusters runs the ‘‘six items challenge’’ in March each year, to encourage people to shop their own wardrobe, buy less and wear it more. We’ve also loved running our repair revolution workshops this year, bringing people together to share the joy of fixing objects and putting them back into use.

You can’t overestimate the power of fun to create change and combat eco-anxiety. Telling people what to do to usually makes them dig their heels in and double-down on their existing behaviour. But if what you’re doing looks like fun, people will join in. I love the litter campaign in three UK towns, which installed glow-in-the-dark and disco bins to encourage positive behaviour from night-time partygoers. Litter was reduced by an average of 75% and in some areas up to 90% less litter was dropped.

To be honest, we know that the most effective way to tackle litter is to adopt a beverage container refund system so that the packaging has a value, and someone will pick it up and recycle it. But if you have to have litter bins, I want glow-in-the-dark and disco bins.

Wastebusters recycling team leader Jeremy (Bis) Bisson gets into work mode. PHOTO: CATRIN SMITH
Wastebusters recycling team leader Jeremy (Bis) Bisson gets into work mode. PHOTO: CATRIN SMITH
Wastebusters’ sense of fun is actually quite subversive. It challenges the status quo that happiness depends on consumption. Film-maker Lauren Greenfield has spent 25 years studying the toxic effects of extreme wealth and in 2018 released the documentary Generation Wealth. She says,‘‘one of the brilliant and tragic parts of capitalism is that it always sows our insecurity, makes us feel like we’re not enough and we need to buy that product to be more beautiful or to be acceptable’’.

At Wastebusters, and at other zero-waste hubs around the country, you are beautiful and accepted without the consumption, especially when you reuse, buy less, repair and make do. I’ve always loved the way that people in our community are proud to say they’re wearing something from Wastebusters. Creativity and personal style is valued more than wearing the latest high-street fashion.

I think of our addiction to buying cheap stuff as like the love affair we’ve had over the past two decades with sugar. It gives you the short-term, feel-good high, but there’s a dark side. Just as we are now seeing an epidemic of diabetes, there’s an epidemic of waste to landfill. But just as we can choose when and where we want sugar in our lives, we don’t have to buy mindlessly into the cheap-stuff high. Instead, we can put a higher value on the satisfaction we get from a well-designed object that will last a lifetime, or from keeping something in use and adding to its story.

The reality is that slow consumption is more aligned with most people’s values than buying something, using it a few times, and throwing it away. You can see it when people craft or repair, there’s something innately satisfying about fixing things up or creating something beautiful.

In these divisive times, a step forward would be to be able to talk about the shared values that connect us and ground us in the natural world. Colmar Brunton’s Better Futures 2021 report found that 63% of Kiwis agree that there is something to be learned from Maori knowledge and traditions of guardianship (e.g., kaitiakitanga) when it comes to sustainability. Te ao Maori has beautiful stories and language to talk about our interconnectedness with the environment.

Even, or especially, in this time of fear and anxiety, we can choose positivity. We can choose to connect with others, and to be generous-hearted. We can choose slow-consumption, to repair, reuse and buy for the long-term. We can reject the sales pitch that we can never have enough or be enough, and choose to share the responsibility to look after Papatuanuku. And we can choose fun, because living in balance with the planet is more fun than trashing it.


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