I’ve always been obsessed with waste. In my belly I recall the devastation as a little four-year-old when “saved treasures” went mouldy (“Mummy there’s something in here that frightens me” when my moss, feathers, seeds decomposed horribly and stenchingly in my red-lidded, round, toffee tin).

An awe-ful horror when another child was sick at the entrance to the drafty outside toilets at Newton School, where the daddy-long-legs collected in the autumn, losing legs as the season progressed.

Down at the River Lea in Coldharbour, where detergent foam from the industrial units rode through the frog-heavy marshes in the late 1960s, and “pollution” had yet to get onto the A-level Biology syllabus (though I was asked to define the word at my university interview in 1971).

The guilt implicit in being a youngest daughter, when even my mother (who said she had “known” from youth that she would bear four children) was admitting to The Population Explosion as a Thing. The High Street, Harpenden and St Peter’s Street in St Albans attested to that over the thirteen years of our family home being in Hertfordshire, not to to speak of the loneliness (and business) of the Streets of London.

From my early teens – indeed as my own facility for increasing the world population (by one, my singleton son) was developing – I developed a huge sensitivity towards the existence of excess, and surplus, and profligacy.

So that even in my notion of the “goodness” (the desirability?) of abundance, and “being well provided for” (an understandable preoccupation of my parents’ 1930’s ‘Depression’ generation) was tainted by my aversion to excess, extravagance, bling, bingeing, and the awful unfairness of the Play of Economics.

Ralph McTell on loneliness in faceless London, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Dk1O1Tyhu4

My parents both inclined towards Socialism, as befits children of grindingly poor backgrounds who went on to benefit from Grammar School education, but only for five years each. Yet I remember that they moved away from actively supporting the Labour Party branch in Chester, because my mother couldn’t bear the sight of “old women fighting over garments in the [fund-raising] Jumble Sales” in the early 1950s, when I was born.

(Her extreme fastitiousness about cleanliness and human waste, which I inherited to a fault, was also understandable, though unhelpful as a role model to a hypersensitive, clingy child.)

So I have set the scene for the playing out of my own steamy relationship with waste. What about yours? My intention is not to pull you down into the morass of my own historic neuroses. Rather, I want to open up a dialogue about our perceptions of joint responsibility for Earth, and how as individuals and communities we can take tangible steps towards the Zero Waste ideal that many scientists believe is vital.

[Health Warning If you to are a “Eco Griever”, please be gentle and kind on yourself doing any of these exercises today. Maybe even be very selective about which you choose to do, so that you can hold with compassion any difficult feelings that emerge. Remember to explore your own feelings about waste with kind curiosity rather than reproach, which is self-defeating. This is not a therapy site and I ask you to take responsibility for your own wellbeing.]

Brain Dump

Today I think it’s a waste of time to …

Today I am aware of the wasted …

Today I feel guilty about the waste of …

Three people who I sometimes secretly think are a “waste of space” are …

Today I allow myself to let go of …

Today I’ll take more personal responsibility for …

My Nanna had an early 20th century plate – made of clear glass embossed with the words (made out of raised dots): “‘Waste not want not’. By some route it came to my parents’ house in the 1950s, and left it unceremoniously in the galvanised dustbin, in pieces. I can still remember The Atmosphere, sultry and smouldering, in the household on the day that it was broken.

It wasn’t a particularly loved item (I think it was “cheap” and rather tawdry actually) but it was part of “My Loife” as my mother would say. The insubstantial heirlooms. The legacy of a struggling childhood (hers) passed on subliminally and received into mine.

So, wasting not and wanting not; uncomfortable tempers; regret and recrimination; and sudden loss. These come as part of a package for me. How is your relationship with waste and wasting? Be gentle on yourself as you explore these fundamental themes.

Phrase Frisk: waste collecting

Taking up your ThoughtBook, jot down any phrases that include the word “waste”, e.g. waste-paper-bin; hops-waste (from a brewery)

Draw a line, then make a numbered list of (say) seven synonyms or close neighbours to “waste” . You can start with ‘Rubbish’:

  1. Rubbish
  2. Surplus


Here we are developing a BrainDump of Waste (Refuse) vocabulary, to excavate later (with a yellow dumper truck like those sometimes seen at municipal waste disposal (landfill) sites.

In a separate exercise, you could list opposites to the “waste synonyms”. Even just writing down these words can help to bring them into your consciousness, to be reflected upon in a (hopefully) aware, compassionate, creative, and interested way.

This January and February I have been joining in the Highland Good Food Conference, with a consortium of interested bodies, to map a locally appropriate response from Highland food growers and consumers to the global Climate Challenge. The Conference is supported by The Pebble Trust and Transition Black Isle.

May be an image of 4 people, people standing, outdoors and text

As you might expect, I ended up in the group discussing the issue of waste food and how it could feed into local growing cycles as soil-improving compost. To contribute to the necessary ideal of a Zero Waste economy.

In the first sessions, during the enthusiasm-charged meetings and discussion over Zoom, I watched as my sense of lethargy and resistance increased, before I managed to notice what lay behind – fear, disempowerment, loss of hope for a population in crisis and a climate in high fever... all those things that had kept me nearly paralysed and inept, weak, easily frightened for decades.

Or that’s what I had believed.

Then I asked myself: where is my passion here? What would I be doing “as a lone wolf” even if I didn’t have access to the synergy of collaborative thrust , available through group activities like these?

And what am I already doing towards exploring my passion, in my own odd way?

  • Composting my food waste and garden trimmings, almost obsessively in my case;
  • Chatting to earthworms as an antidote to winter blues;
  • Buying my clothes in charity shops (even though most are closed at the moment, I scored well in 2018 and 2019, and have a well-stocked wardrobe, quirky, layer-able, appropriate for this new life, and pre-loved …
  • Investigating the reduced fruit-and-veg items in our local co-op, legitimising my purchase of items sourced from overseas (some of it sourced from Africa and South America, exploiting energy-for-transport), because they would otherwise be “wasted”;
  • Getting food from the local Food (Surplus) Share Shed, where overflow from supermarkets is distributed within the community. Once others, perhaps in more need, have had “first dig”. Thank you, yesterday’s out-of-date salad rocket Eruca sativa (to go into soup) and basil, dried-out bran rolls and Sunday’s third-hand story-books;

That remotivated my contribution and I ended up helping with “visualising” the vision for a community-scale composting network that we hope to be established regionally. As a direct response to the need to roll out Zero Waste schemes globally, to conserve the planet’s resources and to halt, to reverse, the escalation of carbon dioxide concentrations.

A week ago, our small-group facilitator presented our talk (including a few glowing seconds of my painstaking and messy “picture”).

Our offering was well received and more importantly I felt I had stepped towards my shyness, my wobbly handwriting (I have developed a tremor whenever I “try too hard”” and my hand-to-eye co-ordiantion was never good), and my fear of letting people down, especially those I regard (mistakenly) as authority figures.

Copyright Kathy Labrum McVittie February 2021

I hope to tell you soon about how the project develops. Once the Conference interim report is published… Why not Follow https://writingpresence.com today?

Golden Threadwork

‘Waste not want not’ only works when …

I did not realise that the ocean’s belly isn’t infinite, until …

I didn’t realise that resources are finite until I was … years of age; I remember …

In some ways I already have the resources I need to …

Today I am grateful for the following, that are abundant in my life:




Further resources

Exercise in Hope-building (a pep-talk that I offered myself)

Where is my passion?

If I were not constrained by responsibilities, health, commitments, economics, disability or gender, current work, age, pandemic regulations… what would I be doing day-to-day, and on behalf of what types of people?

Would I prefer to do this thing/play this role in a group? alone? one-to-one?

What is my resistance to going ahead on this path?

What might be the benefits to myself and others of challenging that resistance?

For help with urgent mental distress in the UK go to https://www.mind.org.uk/ or https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/talk-us-phone/ on 116 123.

May you stay well, valued friemds all!