Waste not, want not
When this column began it was with lamentations about surgical waste, and how it leaves a mark in the world’s landfills for what might as well be eternity. Half a year later, the shift away from single-use plastic may be visible on social media, typified by cute photos of zero-waste stores and colorful replacements for plastic straws and utensils, but environmentalists are uncomfortably aware that the world’s plastic production and waste disposal is still far from ideal. One can only imagine how much single-use plastic was purchased and summarily discarded over the holidays.
I’ve been thinking about this along with Marie Kondo, the “tidying up” guru and originator of the minimalist “KonMari” method, whose books and new Netflix series have encouraged households across the world to dispose of things which don’t “spark joy.” In each episode, Marie Kondo shows up at a client’s doorstep, with the client most commonly being a couple, and helps them to organize their homes, with the serene smile and unflappable composure of an adult who is so put together.
But exposure to a worldwide audience opened KonMari to criticisms as well, some of which were not entirely well-founded. For one thing, memes mocking KonMari for “forcing” one to let go of one’s books have little basis in fact; unlike her aggressive “home makeover” counterparts from reality TV, KonMari doesn’t force her clients to let go. The Guardian alone has three “thinkpieces” on what Marie Kondo supposedly gets wrong. Most of the criticisms are, to put it bluntly, very Western in nature. One of the most popular articles describes Marie Kondo’s actions, of “greeting” and honoring a house upon arrival or her “waking up” books that have been in storage, as trappings of a “woo-woo” fairyland type of thinking. It suggests a certain Western shortsightedness to be immediately dismissive and fail to recognize the animistic roots of such practices, as well as the belief, shared among a number of Eastern philosophies, that even inanimate things have spirits.
One of the more valid concerns about the KonMari method is that it does encourage quick disposal. The bags of stuff which the clients discard are less satisfying to think about when one considers that they might go straight to the landfill. Angela Spring, writing for The Guardian, laments that getting rid of things which no longer “spark joy” encourages a culture of disposability, and would have liked to see KonMari encourage disposal in a manner which honors the Japanese concept of “mottainai.” This is a sense of regret at the idea of waste, said to encompass the concepts of reducing, reusing, recycling and repairing things. It is a term which evokes the type of care which encourages people to use things up until the very end of their lifespan, and to find new homes or uses for things they no longer need. It is a trait that honors the intrinsic value of every created thing — which, in fact, the KonMari method does.
This isn’t to idealize Japan or its culture. Despite its much lauded philosophy of “waste not, want not,” Japan still wastes around 6.5 million tons of food per year, and was reported several times to be “drowning in plastic” after China ceased imports in an effort to reduce paper and plastic waste. Clearly the local environmentalists still have a lot of work to do.
As we find ourselves swept up in one well-meaning trend after another, from reducing our use of plastic to simplifying our lives with the KonMari method, there’s a caution for us not to misinterpret the latter as, perhaps, many of Kondo’s critics do. The method, if its philosophy were to be understood, should be producing a type of cultural shift, and it shouldn’t be the type which promotes getting rid of stuff just to make way for more stuff. In the long term and in the bigger scheme of things, what the method should really teach is the recognition of the eternal and intrinsic value of things, which should replace the quick-to-buy, quick-to-dispose culture we’ve come to know, and which would impact our environment more than a ban on plastic straws would.
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