Waste stories: Making up stuff about rubbish

Dr Anna Wilson, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

Little changes to our everyday lives can all make a difference in our efforts to combat climate change. Thinking differently – and creatively – about waste can enable us to change our behaviour. In a contribution to the bite-sized lecture series, Dr Anna Wilson considers how the ancient practice of storytelling can help address the modern phenomenon of waste. Watch the lecture online and read the transcript below.

Hello. My name is Anna Wilson and I’m speaking on behalf of Waste Stories. 

Waste Stories is a project supported by the Leverhulme Trust, who have generously provided money to let me and my colleagues Hannah Hamilton and Greg Singh make stuff up about rubbish.  We’re very lucky to be able to do this with help from two fantastic writers, Regi Claire and Ron Butlin.  Thanks, Leverhulme! 

You might ask – why tell stories about waste? 

Well, waste is one of the most urgent problems facing our planet. It’s also massive. Scotland alone produces about two-and-a-half million tonnes of household waste each year, and less than half of that gets recycled.  Each year we dump, bury or burn vast quantities of stuff, poisoning the planet, adding to global heating and killing wildlife. 

What’s most shocking is that we know all this, and yet we still do it.  No matter how many times we hear the statistics, we’re still producing more than 90% of the waste we produced 10 years ago.  And that’s why we want to tell stories about waste.  Waste is a modern problem, but stories are an ancient solution. 

Stories have always had the power to entertain and engage. They also help us make sense of the world – they communicate shared values, they give us role models, they help us see things from perspectives other than our own.  They can also help us challenge old attitudes and rigid mindsets – they can help us “think outside the box,” imagining ways of doing and living differently. 

So what would a Waste Story look like? 

Well – waste could be a villain – the bad guy that trashes the place, creating chaos and destruction. 

Waste avoidance could be a hero – the mysterious stranger who arrives just when he’s needed, who cleans up the town and rides off into the sunset. 

Or waste could be a plotline – a tale of wasted time or opportunities, the happy-ever-after missed out on because of a chance thrown away. 

Or waste could be allegorical, speaking on more than one level. 

Let’s take an example. 

We often celebrate important events in our lives by buying stuff to immediately throw away – helium balloons – confetti – wrapping paper.  Our rituals are commercialised and turned into moments of excessive and expensive consumption – and to make matters worse, we use them in ways that make cleaning them up, let alone recycling them, incredibly difficult. They drift through the environment, carried on the winds or washed by the rains, passing through our hedgerows, rivers, and seas before eventually ending up in the bellies of birds, fish and animals. What kinds of stories could we tell about this waste? 

Imagine a birthday party. The wealthy parents of an over-indulged child buy dozens of foil balloons – the child is learning that he can have whatever he wants, and throw it away when he’s done with it. (But, in Roald Dahl style, perhaps one of the balloons ends up reaching a child who could do with some light and joy in his life – snarled in the wire at a refugee camp, for example.) 

Or let’s take a closer look at the foiletti.  A glittering wedding, no expense spared – presaging a marital meltdown caused by consumption, greed, debt and waste, a direct parallel to the planetary 2C temperature rise we so desperately need to avoid. 

Or we can take another example. The Fast Fashion industry is a terrible creator of waste.  Fashion is second only to oil as a source of global pollution.  Every year, it consumes 1.2 trillion litres of water – that’s like throwing away just less than half of Loch Lomond. Cotton farming alone uses so much water it has been responsible for drying up whole seas. And the end-products, the clothes themselves – well, we throw so much away, we could fill Sydney Harbour every year, or Loch Lomond every two years. Take your pick.   

So what kinds of story could we tell about fashion? Let’s get a bit more hopeful with these.  

Imagine a school uniform bank, somewhere in central Scotland.  The seamstress who runs it diligently unpicks the head-boy emblem embroided onto the blazer that has been donated at the end of the school year.  But it soon has to be sewn on again, because this blazer is magic, and whoever wears it – no matter what their past experiences – is soon flourishing at school, so much so that they become the new head-boy. 

Or we could turn to a novel solution to Fast Fashion – the shift from an ownership based model to one where clothes (and other goods) are shared, and we hire rather than own.  Imagine the stories this slinky, stylish designer dress could tell, if only it could speak! All the people who have hired it, the people it has met, the places it has been … Glitzy dinners, notorious nightclubs, relationships broken and mended … 

Maybe by telling ourselves stories like this, we can change our relationships with waste. We can challenge ourselves to look at waste (and waste avoidance) in new ways – and create our own heroes and villains. And anyone can do it! Just let your imagination run free. Take a look at this picture, and ask yourself: 

  • What’s his name? 
  • Where has he come from? 
  • How did he get here? 
  • What happens next? 

Or take a look at THIS picture, and ask yourself: 

  • Who’s was it? 
  • Why did she throw it out? 
  • What happens next? 

Or take a look at THIS picture, and ask yourself: 

  • Who drove it, and where? 
  • Why was it left here? 
  • What happens next? 

Or this picture, and ask yourself: 

  • What is it? 
  • Where has it come from? 
  • How did it get here? 
  • What happens next? 

And tell your own Waste Stories! 

Thank you for listening. 

Theme by the University of Stirling