Local woman uses lessons from the Great Depression to save the planet

By Luke Reiter

Bette Sundberg is chatting with her daughter, Betsy Miller, over coffee on a sunny April afternoon. Reaching out for a napkin Sundberg bumps her cup, and a small ring of spilled coffee forms in the saucer beneath.

Bette Sundberg poses with her collection of plastic party cups, some of which she’s washed and reused for 23 years. Photo by Luke Reiter

“Oh dear,” Sundberg says as she slips the plate away and deftly flicks it over the cup. She hardly has time to finish the exclamation before the last drop is returned and the now-dry saucer is resting under the cup again. Spilled coffee, like most things in Sundberg’s life, will not go to waste.

In the downstairs suite of the Miller’s home in which Sundberg lives a plastic grocery bag will become a storage container or garbage can liner. A tattered garment is harvested for cleaning rags and the buttons are deposited into a “button box” for future repairs. Watering cans are filled with rain and a piece of wrapping paper will conceal numerous gifts in its lifetime.

With a sly smile Miller produces a wrinkled freezer bag she found in her mother’s kitchen. The Ziploc brand name has faded from years of use and countless washings but the date it was first used is still clearly inscribed in permanent ink.

“Oh no––’97,” Sundberg says with a laugh. “1997 was quite a while ago.”

Despite the years that have passed, Sundberg buys new freezer bags so rarely she can still remember the occasion for which she bought this one.

“Your daddy found a good buy on hamburger––came home with 10 pounds of it,” Sundberg recalls. “And what was I going to do with 10 pounds of it?”

Thanks to their sturdy composition freezer bags have exceptional longevity, and Sundberg quietly speculates she has more than one of the 1997 models still in use.

no such thing as disposable

Sundberg was born in Isanti in 1930, one year after the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression. Her parents were Swedish immigrants who saw owning a home as a privilege of the wealthy and rarely had a car during Sundberg’s childhood.

When he couldn’t find a job Sundberg’s father worked in the WPA, which frequently required traveling. Her mother volunteered as a midwife but mostly focused on rearing her eight children.

“It was tough times,” Sundberg recalls, but despite the challenges she’s quick to say the Depression wasn’t unpleasant for her because she didn’t know any different.

“I never felt deprived as a child,” Sundberg says. “There was always lots of love in the house.”

Food was limited, although when her father got a job as a milkhauler and later a buttermaker at the Isanti Creamery the family never wanted for dairy supplies.

At Christmas, Sundberg was excited if she got an orange. Instead of gifts, the joy of the season came from activities like lutefisk suppers, church services and early-morning caroling.

Sundberg encountered her first flush toilet when she was 10 years old (“It was exciting,” she says). She was in her 20s the first time she saw a TV, and she suspects the lack of exposure to advertising as a child is part of the reason she never developed a consumerist mentality.

Though the Great Depression is nearly three quarters of a century behind her, the lessons it ingrained in Sundberg will last her for the rest of her life.

“There’s no such thing as disposable,” Miller says of her mother.


A World of Beauty

Sundberg may hold on to the same frugal habits as her parents, but she’s motivated for different reasons.

“God has given us a tremendous gift––a world of beauty––and what are we doing with it?” Sundberg says.

She becomes emotional when considering the rampant wastefulness she sees around her and the impact it has taken on the planet. For Sundberg, it is well worth the effort to rewash the freezer bag for as long as it remains airtight.

“All I can see if I keep buying stuff like that is our dumps,” she says.

While Sundberg’s dedication is laudable, it can lead to some strange behaviors. Her grandchildren are perplexed when she instructs them to take turns with a tea bag rather than giving one to each, and Miller recalls some frustration in her teenage years trying to navigate around used paper towels that were hung to dry. However, Miller says her mother was never preachy with her convictions.

“Looking at others, judging others, would never enter that mind,” Miller says. “She shows by her example.”

Sundberg says she doesn’t judge because she feels she’s not a good teacher: it’s easier for her to wait for a litterbug to pass by and clean up after him than to confront him.

“Betsy!” Sundberg exclaims, and begins to laugh. Her daughter has slipped a plastic grocery bag out of the cupboard and removes several stacks of white plastic party cups.

The cups, Miller explains, were recovered from various garbage cans by Sundberg and washed out and have been a staple of every family gathering for many years. Some of the cups date back to when Sundberg served lunches at a senior center more than 20 years ago.

Though the garbage can foraging may look odd, the durability of the cups reveals how flawed our concept of “disposable” has become says Madalyn Cioci, a source reduction specialist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Cioci explains that while recycling has become a trendy solution for those who want to be environmentally friendly, it’s not as effective as the common-sense practices of reusing and repairing items that Sundberg and her family relied on years ago.

“That’s what the Depression taught so well,” Cioci says.

Cioci cited a recently-revived epigram of the era: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

For Sundberg, the desire for a low-waste life is more than a catchy phrase or a popular movement––it’s a lifelong instinct.

“I just want to use these things to the best of my ability,” she says. “I feel badly to see waste.”