The Wisdom Behind The Words ‘Waste Not, Want Not’

My sister once said that the word that is sure to grab everyone’s attention at my house is the word ‘buang’ or discard–and she is not wrong. Whenever I hear someone mention anything that could be associated with throwing things out, it is impossible for me to keep my focus until I know what is being thrown out, why it is being thrown out or perhaps what is actually being said.

The saying one man’s trash is another man’s treasure shows that rubbish can be all about perspective. I remember back at school, my friends used to give me their old highlighters, coloured pens and markers, after they found me fishing them out from the waste basket. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have any coloured pens but it bothered me to see people throwing out things that could still be used. While others got frustrated by the inconsistent ink flow or the lighter colour as some of the ink dried up, I saw that it could still leave mark. Dried magic pens may not be ideal for writing anymore but I could use them for colouring, producing something akin to the dry brush effect. And highlighters, no matter how unsaturated could still mark important notes.

My mother, who was getting rather annoyed by my growing collection of bunga telur flowers, old and unusable CDs, bits of colourful ribbons, strings, papers and torn fabric, started throwing them out while I was out at school–only to find them reappear in another day or two. It took her some months before she finally caught my toddler brother waddling from the bin with a handful of broken items and handing them all to me, whispering that he had just ‘saved’ them from the rubbish bin. When my mother taught us ‘waste not, want not’, she could not have imagined the repercussions it left in the house.

Nonetheless, she is quite the ‘rescuer‘ herself, specialising in food recycle and recovery. She grew up watching her grandmother cooked fried rice with a variety of leftover fish and gravy and she herself would occasionally make ‘nasi special’ (special rice) every now and then from a concoction of various curries, ‘kuah‘ (gravy from side dishes, usually eaten with rice) and ‘sambal’ (a kind of hot sauce) that she could pull out from the freezer. What others might have considered to be useless because it’s out of ‘lauk‘, be it chicken, beef or fish, she would pack them and store them for future use.

Which is why it is sad, and sometimes maddening, for us to see the mounds of half eaten food piled high on plates, along with rows of barely touched drinks, that people leave behind at eateries. Papers, with their backs still white and untarnished by ink, getting crumpled and tossed into rubbish bins is as painful to me to watch as hearing fingernails scraping on a chalkboard. And my sister is always going around, turning off unused electrical appliances

My late great grandmother would always say that the more grateful you are and the more you try to make use of what you already have, you would always be blessed with more. I used to think that what she meant was you would have more physical things: money, food and items, because you have less need to buy more. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that there is more wisdom to her words; wisdom that she probably deeply understood.

Because through our dislike for throwing things, we have to constantly really dig into our heads to try and find a use for something nobody pays attention to. When the dough of one of my mother’s early bread making attempts failed to rise, we tried frying it and from that ‘disaster’, we’ve got ourselves some interesting ‘cakoi‘-like fritters that everyone enjoyed. When our collection of curries, too little to be served as side dishes, reaches a formidable size, we tossed them into the rice cooker and get a surprise mix of flavour that we could never recreate. And when I pull out my collection of odds and ends for a craft project back at school, I could come up with something unique that others would call ‘creative’.

The thing is, what people call creativity is usually the ability or tendency to look at the world from a different perspective and finding unique ways to do things or solve problems when unconventional methods fail. And in a world where we are constantly bombarded with quick and instant solutions that are taken for granted, you don’t get a chance to train your mind into looking for interesting and possibly better alternative methods or even the consequences of all of your actions.

And there is something very beautiful in seeing the wonderful possibilities and the many threads that connects the various cycles which creates the universe–all lighting up in front of you, in the form of a chicken-less chicken curry that is left in several bowls after a small community dinner. And when someone asks me if I am going to have it as a dipping sauce with my bread, I smile and wonder upon the wisdom of my grandmother’s words–and then run off to grab the next bowl before someone collects it for the bin.

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