Second life: My mother the recycler

I grew up in a home where recycling happened as a matter of course, long before it became sexy. I don’t think my mother was deliberately thinking of “the environment” when she recycled. She was more likely judiciously considering how to extend the lifespan of things in her household by reusing and reinventing, rather than discarding or wasting.

Home-ground tea spices, essential Indo-African spices and condiments sent to me by my mother continue to arrive in glass jars that once held face creams. When I visit the Mother City, her food and padkos are delivered in what were once mayonnaise and jam jars or plastic margarine and ice-cream tubs. My mother was storing and reusing plastic shopping bags long before legislation required us to bring our own or pay for them.

For her, coming from a poor background meant ensuring that everything she consumes can be reused. My father, in contrast, is a big consumer and discarder. Growing up a dark-skinned man in a white-ruled world, and having successfully escaped poverty, he celebrates consuming and upgrading as signs of success.

Growing up hearing stories of a “miserly” great-uncle who had made “good”, even owning property when others of our ilk could only dream of such fortune, had me curious. I wondered about the connection between his wealth and his miserliness. I asked for details and heard about how he saved elastic bands and bits of string, all ready for reuse. What I heard didn’t sound miserly, just sensible.

If that was miserliness, then I too am a miser. I save plastic bags for reuse. I save plastic containers and glass jars like my mother does. My kitchen cupboards have dedicated sections for glass jars and plastic containers stripped of their labels, ready for their second, third or fourth incarnations.

I go further, too, cleaning the jars of labelling and gummy residue, and adorn them using glass paints. In our mass-produced world, my hand-painted jars make appealing packaging for gifts and treats—home-ground coffees, pistachios, cinnamon-infused honeys, olives preserved in garlic, rosemary and chilli-flavoured oils ...

My mother has passed on to me the ability to see how to reuse some of the things that we so often discard. For me, being more environmentally conscious in my daily life has included taking a more critical and considered look at the things I throw away. Who needs Prozac when you can recycle?

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