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Make do and mend

Who remembers cardboard boxes at the end of supermarket tills? How about glass milk bottles? We don't need the technology of the future to make eco-friendly choices at home, says David Barnett

Waste not, want not: many of us need to fix and reuse older items, instead of chucking away what we own
Waste not, want not: many of us need to fix and reuse older items, instead of chucking away what we own
Waste not, want not: many of us need to fix and reuse older items, instead of chucking away what we own

By David Barnett

When I was a kid at the turn of the 1980s, one of my most hated jobs was being sent to the fish and chip shop. Not, you understand, because I didn't like fish and chips; rather, because I would invariably be sent with a clanking nest of bowls and a tea towel.

It was all right if anyone wanted just fish and chips, or pie and chips, because they were wrapped in newspaper - indeed, today's news was tomorrow's chip wrapping. But if there was any moistness attached to the order - gravy, or the Wigan delicacy of "pea-wet" (the juice from the simmering peas) - then a receptacle was required.

I think polystyrene trays had probably been introduced by then and I would often bemoan the fact I had to hand our own dishes over the counter to be gently warmed before the food was put in them, wrapped in paper and then covered with our tea-towel for extra insulation.

But my mother would never countenance a plastic tray, not, I don't think, through any desire to save the planet, but because they cost an extra couple of pence.

I was given pause to think of this when hearing that Morrisons was introducing string bags for shoppers. Or should that be reintroducing? When I was young, no self-respecting nan would be seen out at the shops without a string bag. And for a bigger shop, produce would be placed directly into a wheeled shopping trolley.

Bags provided by the shops were just not a thing, especially plastic bags. If you went to the supermarket, there were often piles of cardboard boxes at the back, near the tills, which you would use to load up your goods and take them to the car (or bus stop).

Morrisons says that the £1 reusable, washable string bags - made from unbleached and untreated recycled cotton - are designed so that fruit and veg and other loose produce can be carried home "just like shoppers from the 1970s and '80s".

These days, most of us are a lot more savvy about recycling. The latest figures from the government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that household recycling is 45.7% of total waste, compared to 45.2% a year earlier.

But the percentages don't tell a story as starkly as the actual figures. In 2016, the UK generated 222.9 million tons of waste. We are throwing a lot of stuff away, in other words.

But it wasn't always the case. Just 30 or 40 years ago, there was far more emphasis on reusing and repairing. Indeed, it was easier to replace something than fix it. I remember, at one point in the 1990s, throwing a perfectly good printer in the bin. Why? Because it was cheaper to buy a new one than purchase some new ink.

My mother would have been appalled because she was part of the "make do and mend" generation. When I was a child, new clothes were for Easter, Christmas, or birthdays. The rest of the time they were patched up and had to put in more service until they could stagger on no more.

What goes around comes around. Last April, the Levenshulme Repair Cafe opened up in a church community centre in the town to the southeast of Manchester, just for two hours on Saturday mornings. It was the second repair cafe to open in Manchester, the first one being in Chorlton; now there are five.

If you've seen Channel 4's Repair Shop show you'll know the score: people take things in and a team of experts try to make them as good as new. But while the TV show focuses on antiques and heirlooms, the Levenshulme Repair Cafe takes a more practical, pragmatic approach.

Many items have obsolescence designed into them. It's almost as if the manufacturers don't want you to fix the things you buy, preferring you to throw it in the skip when it goes wrong and buy a new one. Which is why, on October 1, the EU brought in new "right to repair" legislation.

This stops manufacturers making products, especially white goods, which are impossible to repair because the parts aren't widely available. Campaigners say the legislation doesn't go far enough, because it only makes provision for professional repairers, not the consumers themselves, to be able to get hold of the necessary parts.

But it's certainly a step in the right direction.

While there are many jobs that the average person wouldn't dream of tackling, there is a lot that they can do with items such as furniture, bikes, clothing and toys, and the Levenshulme Repair Cafe is all about teaching people those skills as well as fixing their broken stuff.

Thanks to the activism of the likes of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, we're becoming more aware that the fight against climate change is fought on several fronts: through legislation and action at Government level and via our own, smaller-scale, but no less important, efforts at home.

Just like people did in the 1970s and 1980s, with their string bags and shopping trolleys, before disposable consumer culture took hold.

What else could we learn from those days? How about using a lot more glass?

Mark Hall works at York-based Business Waste and he's positively evangelical about bottles. He waxes poetic about the days when milk used to be delivered in glass bottles - not plastic cartons - and after using it you'd wash out the bottle, put it on the step and the milkman would collect and reuse it.

Hands up if you're old enough to remember the bottle deposit scheme? This was when you bought a bottle of soft drink from a local shop and there would be a few pence extra charge, which was refunded when you took the empty back to the shop.

It was a much better system than having all these plastic bottles that get dumped in hedgerows, or landfill sites.

Even if adults couldn't be bothered to take bottles back to the shop, it was quite a lucrative business for kids, collecting empties and taking them back and making extra pocket money.

Incentivising recycling always has positive effects. Many years ago, I visited Osaka in Japan and went to a bar that sold beer in cans. When you'd finished you put your empty can in a slot in a huge one-armed bandit, pulled the handle and, if you got a winning combination on the reels, you won a free beer.

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from the previous generation that tick boxes when it comes to making choices for a more sustainable future.

A lot of them - fixing up broken things, repairing clothes, deposits on fizzy drink bottles - might have been driven by economic, rather than ecological reasons, but the end result is the same.

And it wouldn't surprise me if there's a hipster fish-and-chip takeaway out there offering a small discount for anyone who brings in their own dishes and a tea towel to collect their food.

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