Lessons from my grandmother

We must learn from our ancestors about overcoming shortages in supplies to meet societies’ growing demands, says Zero Waste Scotland’s environmental analyst, Ramy Salemdeeb.

From the stone age to the present day, humankind has exhausted the Earth’s natural reserves to build our civilisation. Resources are extracted, transformed into products, used until they break, and then discarded. We live in a world where 90 billion tonnes of materials are consumed every year, and this number is expected to more than double by 2050[1].

Prior to the industrial revolution, Mother Nature had been able to replenish depleted resources, but it couldn’t cope anymore with our insatiable demands.

The take-make-dispose model has made the sheer scale of natural resource extraction a cause for concern. Addressing this challenge is imperative as only nine per cent of the resources put into the economy get reused[2].

Drastic action is needed to ‘bend’ our economy from its linear trajectory and technological advancement is key to this. I’ve come across countless businesses that use big data, the Internet of Things, and blockchain to advance a circular economy.

My grandmother is a true believer in the saying ‘what-goes-around-comes-around’

In the past, societies had similar challenges in meeting their demands using available resources. Their challenges used to be region-specific as they had independent supply-demand systems. But today’s challenge has emerged in its global scale because societies are inextricably knitted together and it’s impossible to draw boundaries between supply-demand networks.

Although challenges faced by our ancestors differ in magnitude and cause when compared to ours, their essence remain the same.

This article takes us back in time to find out how our ancestors confronted similar challenges, learn from their experiences, and identify valuable lessons that could be of benefit in addressing current challenges.

My grandmother, mother of eight children, is a Palestinian refugee who was expelled from her land and family home in Jaffa and ended up in a UN refugee camp in Gaza. The influx of refugees to a small strip of land on the Mediterranean coast has led to shortages in suppliers. Palestinian refugees have struggled for decades with this situation – a ‘micro’ example of what we are facing today: a growing world population with finite resources.

These key principles have helped my grandmother survive and thrive.

Maximize value recovery

My grandmother made sure to maximise the benefits of everything – especially food – before discarding anything. About-to-be-stale bread was turned into crispy crackers, and soup was made from the pulp of courgettes, after they had been hollowed out to be stuffed with rice. Food deemed unfit for her family was given to poultry in her backyard.

Today, there are numerous examples of businesses that share my grandmother’s ethos. Bakery ‘waste’ is used to make beer, for example, while a start-up company has created a juice range by squeezing ‘ugly’ fruit. There is also a widespread campaign to re-legalise the use of swill in Europe[3].


My grandmother is a true believer in the saying ‘what-goes-around-comes-around’, so she has always asked her kids (my mum, uncles and aunties) to buy the family’s weekly provisions from the neighborhood. Her motive has never been economically-driven, as cheaper options were available in other places. She decided to buy locally to support her neighbourhood and ensure the community is capable of supporting itself without being dependent on external markets.

My grandmother considers the long-term impacts of her decisions and will stick to them, as their social benefits outweigh potential savings

Those working in the waste industry know the consequence of dependency on other markets. Countries around the world, especially those that used to recycle 99% of materials abroad, have been struggling since the imposition of import restrictions in China on 24 streams of recyclable materials[4].

Had investment been made in local waste infrastructure, recycling programmes in those countries wouldn’t have been disrupted. A decentralisedcircular economy system would have enabled them to increase material efficiency, support local businesses and reduce the impact of market disruption resulting from external forces.

Leadership is critical

My grandmother’s decisions haven’t always been popular among her family, especially my grandfather, who couldn’t understand why she was paying more to buy locally, or giving a broken chair to a neighbour rather than burning it in the stove. My grandmother considers the long-term impacts of her decisions and will stick to them, as their social benefits outweigh potential savings. By being persuasive, she established her own ‘circular’ lifestyle.

A circular economy doesn’t necessarily mean all industries benefit equally from incorporating these principles into their operations. Governments have a vital role to assess opportunities, communicate clearly and support businesses that might be affected by disruptive change. Effective leadership with a clear vision and capabilities to set priorities on how to move forward is essential.

This article featured first in the September/October issue of Circular.


[1]        http://www.resourcepanel.org/reports

[2]        https://www.circularity-gap.world/

[3]        https://theconversation.com/ban-on-food-waste-as-animal-feed-should-be-reconsidered-heres-why-95480

[4]        https://www.ft.com/content/360e2524-d71a-11e8-a854-33d6f82e62f8

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