Many Catholics criticize America for our “throwaway culture,” from throwing out scrap paper to euthanizing the elderly. But I question the validity of this criticism as it applies to throwing away physical objects. We may “waste” a thing to gain something more important.

I have heard people lament that while our grandparents fixed things or repurposed them, rarely throwing away things that had any possible value, my generation gladly dumps worn or broken items into the garbage. It is too cheap and easy to replace them. They were resourceful; we are wasteful.

A Valuable Resource

I question this assessment because human time is a valuable resource to be used wisely and because a replacement is inexpensive for a reason. Let’s say my toaster breaks tomorrow morning. My options are to buy a new toaster, throwing away or recycling the old one, or to fix it. I have never fixed a toaster, but I have basic tools and can look up instructions online. Total time might be anywhere from one to four hours. Which should I choose?

Buy a new one. A worker in a factory can produce many toasters in a single hour of work, compared to my hours-long exercise in electrical frustration. I use both of our time wisely when he makes toasters and I buy one of them to replace the broken one.

If I were not fixing the toaster, I might be spending the time on Facebook, but I might also be playing with my children, studying great Russian literature, or praying. If the factory worker wasn’t producing toasters, he might be able to get another job producing something more valuable, but he might also be unemployed. His producing the toaster during working hours provides income that will enable him play with his children, study great Russian literature, or pray during free hours; my fixing the toaster during my free hours prevents me from doing those same things.

This argument raises the question: what is waste? It would seem to me that waste is failure to put a resource to its best use, or at least a good use, in the context of what we are called to do. The same thing can be wasteful in one set of circumstances and resourceful in another, depending on our vocation.

If a man is paid to cook for a restaurant and is instead reading a novel, he is wasting his time and his employer’s money. But when he’s on the train on his way home, staring at his watch and thinking about what he ate for lunch, he is wasting his time. He would be better off reading the novel. If there is only one newspaper in the office and ten people wish to read it, using the paper to wipe up your spilled coffee instead of using a one-cent napkin would be a waste of the newspaper. But digging yesterday’s paper out of the recycling bin for the same purpose instead of using up the napkin, that’s resourceful.

Throwing away the toaster components, assuming that the toaster could be fixed, is certainly a waste of metal. In some cases, putting the parts in a landfill is a waste of space, too, since landfill space can also be used for buildings or maintained as a forest. Even recycling the toaster involves the time, labor, capital, and inefficiency needed to turn it into something else. What if fixing it would take my only free afternoon for the week, when otherwise I would be taking my children for a scenic walk, calling my grandmother in the nursing home, or reading an important book?

Which is Worst?

Physical resources are valuable and we shouldn’t waste them. But space is valuable. Human time is also valuable. So which is worst: Wasting my time? Wasting space? Or wasting metal?

Which one should be sacrificed to save the other depends on the circumstances and the other possible uses of each. We may have to waste one thing in order to have something better. This is the kind of choice we have to make every day - it is impossible to have and to do every good thing, every time.

Why, then, is there a popular opinion that Americans generally make the wrong choices, that we waste too much? Why do so many of us feel a little guilty when we throw away something that we could have fixed? Why are we expected to value physical resources over our time?

Some might object that physical resources like metal and landfill space exist in finite quantities that we are using up, while human labor is infinitely renewable. This type of thought should be particularly rejected by a Christian, who knows that there is a limit not only to the number of human generations but to the minutes and years of each individual person on this earth. To imply that my individual labor is part of a renewable cycle like a tree in a forest is demeaning and utilitarian.

Each year the Lord grants us is precious time to be spent in the light of my eternity; it is our duty to ensure that we are using that time wisely. That may mean tossing out the broken toaster, even if I could have fixed it.