Wednesday, March 06, 2013

We Never Had It So Good

Here’s an exchange of emails I have had with one of our members, on how reuse and recycling has changed over just one lifetime.

Dear Alan
When I was a small child, in the very early 1950's, most of my family lived at the King's Cross end of Pentonville Road. My grandmother, who had brought up 5 children on her own and was living on a widow's pension, was fully aware of the value of recycling.
Every few months she would drag from under her huge iron bedstead a number of bundles of newspaper, neatly tied with string, and load them onto a superannuated pushchair (probably mine). She would add to the pile some clean, washed out jam jars and perhaps a bag of rags. Rags were quite hard to come by in those days. Worn bedsheets were cut in half and turned edge to edge. Frayed shirt collars and cuffs were similary unpicked, turned and re-attached. Threadbare towels were cut up and the better pieces became face flannels. Sections unsuitable for flannels became floor cloths. Adult garments were unpicked and made into children's clothes and then passed down through the family. However, if any scraps of rag had survived the recycling process, they were loaded onto the pushchair and my grandmother then trundled it, with me and my cousin Ronnie in tow, towards Chapel Market.
But not quite to Chapel Market. To a terribly decrepit shop in a terribly decrepit building in White Lion Street, which runs parallel to Chapel Street. Had I read Bleak House before the age of five (I was an early reader but not that early) I would have recognised the premises and the wrinkled, grubby, surly owner as a modern day descendant of Mr. Krook. The shop was stuffed to the gills with bundles of newspaper, boxes of glass jars and bags of rags as well as much of which I was then, and thankfully still am, blissfully unaware.
This modern Mr. Krook would weigh the rags and the newspaper, count the jam jars and grudgingly drop a couple of shillings into my grandmother's hand. We would then go on to Chapel Market where the shillings would buy a week's vegetables, a nice piece of fish or a couple of lamb chops.
At the same time my father was running a waste paper works. The paper was purchased from a variety of sources: printer's shops where sheets had to be cut to size, producing offcuts; companies who were moving premises and having a massive clear-out of old paperwork; firms of solicitors who had kept client files for the length of time required by statute; publishers who were pulping unsold copies of their publications. These are just a few. The purchased paper was tipped onto a conveyer belt where it was sorted into categories by a small army of women. It was then baled, loaded onto lorries and transported to the large paper mills along the Thames (Thames Board Mills is a name which I remember). Payment was according to the quality of the sorted waste paper.
Good, you might say. A small slice of post-war austerity lifestyle. And then what?
Well, this is not just reminiscence. You will have noticed that my grandmother was paid for her newspapers, jam jars and rags. You will have noticed that my father's company paid for the paper they collected.
So why do local authorities have to pay the companies to whom they send paper, glass etc. for recycling, which those companies are either going to sell on or recycle into new goods and then make a profit? Shouldn't those companies be paying for the material from which they are going to make money?
I know I can rely on you for the answer, Alan.
Kind regards
Dear Patsy,
As you know I could tell a similar story.
I'm afraid that the economics have changed.
Back then materials were in short supply and the products they made were relatively expensive as a percentage of disposable income. That's why shirt collars were turned etc. The buyers of materials found themselves in a seller's market and had to compete with each other to get the materials they needed, hence the payment which would have been set at a market rate.
These days materials are not in short supply and the products we buy are relatively cheap (mostly produced by cheap labour abroad) which has lead to the throwaway society. Labour, in the UK is expensive. So it is cheaper to use new bottles/jars rather than collect and sterilize returns to the Off-License. We do not recycle bottles and jars, we recycle glass. The throwaway society has lead to a massive increase in the amount of material that needs to be collected and disposed of. The Waste Authorities (Local Councils) have to get rid of it somehow, but we are running out of landfill and there is the Landfill Tax. Basically the Local Council's are now in a buyer's market so the Companies who take recycled materials can afford to pitch their charges to take the material just below what it would cost the council to send it to landfill. The collection, transportation and treatment of recycled materials is also very expensive simply because it is carried out in the UK where costs are high, labour, fuel etc.
Basically, we have an oversupply of recycled material (some of it still goes to landfill if nobody will take it) and Councils are competing with each other to get rid of it the cheapest way possible with the backstop being very expensive landfill. So the takers have the upper hand and can afford to charge. It does though mean that any cost advantage in that process can be passed onto the customers of the finished product and the shareholders, which means products stay cheap, people throw them away, council's have to pay to get rid of it, takers can afford to charge ...
This is what our Neo-Liberal Governments of the last 34 years describe as a "free market".
Thank you Alan, I knew you would have the answer. I am always impressed with your grasp of the issues.
However answers are one thing, solutions quite another. Is there any alternative? Can we go back to the old ways of making use of every scrap of what comes into our homes? I try, but I feel like I am swimming against an enormous tide.
Dear Patsy,
Ah, solutions. Sometimes solutions arrive in strange ways and are not immediately recognisable even though they are staring us in the face.
What we need to do is to turn a vicious circle into a virtuous circle. Somehow we need to stop people buying stuff and throwing it away and to make it economically viable, indeed essential, to repair and make do and mend.
To do this we need to depress the living standards of the poor and those in work by reducing real incomes and increasing the costs of overheads like tax, housing costs and public transport. This sets up a knock on effect, rather like a triple dip recession, as people stop spending which puts pressure on those who remain in work to keep their jobs, with further reductions in income, zero hours contracts etc. In Economic terms it is called the Paradox of Thrift.
Of course it’s not easy to take vast sums of money out of the economy. To do this we need to re-balance the economy by putting most of the cash into the hands of millionaires who are not going to spend it on cheap crap from abroad. They are going to stash it in an off-shore bank account where it can’t do any environmental damage. So, we need to encourage landlords to charge very high rents, give loads of money to Bankers and speculators, and assist in every way possible through Private Finance Initiatives and the like to fund the Private Sector in Education and Health so that the profits can be kept out of harms way.
You see, despite reports to the contrary, this Government, and in particular George Osborne, actually do know what they are doing. Because very few will be able to afford to travel there will be no need for expensive public infrastructure projects on bridges, roads or airports eating away at our precious countryside, the savings providing even further tax cuts for the rich. Nuclear will ensure that the blight of renewables on our green and pleasant land will be curtailed, that energy remains expensive and that the simple pleasures of countryside pursuits can thrive.
This government really is "The Greenest Government Ever".
My God Alan, these are the politics of despair. Is there really no alternative to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? I can't bear to to think that my efforts to reduce my impact on the welfare of the planet are lining the pockets of those who have more than they can spend in 100 lifetimes.
Please put this on the blog, I can't wait to see people's reactions.
Over to you …

Note: For anyone under 50 the title of this post is taken from this.


  1. It is a fact that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer under the last Labour governments. All that the Lib-Con government is doing is carrying on where Labour left off, which is why it is the height of hypocrisy for Ed Balls and his nasal non-entity of a leader to keep complaining about it.

    NHS reforms have already caused hundreds of deaths, and the closure of A&Es around London guarantees hundreds more people will die on the long journey to their nearest A&E. It's all grist to the mill.

    As for world recession, welcome it with open arms. It's the only way to save the planet for future generations.

    When I was a small boy, we used to save our aluminium milk bottle tops to take to school to help the economy after WWII. Now aluminium is rejected by the recycling collectors, presumably because it isn't magnetic, so can't be separated from the collection by automatic machines. So aluminium goes to landfill.

    Oh, and don't forget the role of the traditional housewife in making do and mending. Now they all want to go out to work and Government encourages them to do so. They're too busy to make do and mend. If hubby's shirt has a button missing, it goes in the bin. And they need a dishwasher to save time. And when that gets clogged with limescale, that goes to the dump too.

    The only way to stop all this waste is to stop people buying things.

    1. There's one thing that far more of them ought to buy. We used to be invited to do so with the very discreet inquiry "a little something for the weekend sir"?

    2. On the subject of working women: the governemnt has nothing to gain fiscally from women staying at home and looking after their own children. If those women go out to work,they pay tax on their earnings. They then have to pay somebody (usually another woman working in a nursery) to look after their children, and that person then pays tax on her income. Forget the social consequences, just look at the bottom line.

  2. Yes, but Alan's descripton of the way to stop people buying things is too horrible to contemplate - enforced poverty. Is education the answer,encouraging people to live more thriftily and to use the money they save to ensure an income in retirement and to pay off any debts they may have? An economist during the depression (forgive me, I don't know which one) said that every time you save five shillings you put a man out of work. We seem to be trapped in a cycle where we have to purchase more and more to ensure the continued health of the economy, which actually means consuming more and more and stripping everything out of the planet. I don't see how we can break out of the cycle.

    1. Patsy,
      That's the whole point of my rather naughty description of the present government's "green" credentials, and the other two establishment parties as well.

      The way they measure success of the economy is growth in GDP, which as I have pointed out many times before includes the costs of failure and things like planned obsolescence and making products that can't be repaired.

      This sits rather uncomfortably with the Limits of Growth and resource depletion so until our Eton educated friends wise up and realise that the Economy is a subset of the Ecology, we are stuck with it.

      We need a new paradigm that measures economic success in terms of its health/wealth and includes and values things like the volunteers and carers who underpin the fabric of our society.

      You are not going to find it in the mainstream. Breaking the mould of established thought is very difficult and it will only be when the system finally collapses under pressure from Mother Nature that such ideas will be considered.

  3. But won't it be too late by then? Won't there already be mass starvation, desertification/flood etc? Mr. Hickey hints at a solution - a decrease in the population -but that is incredibly difficult to bring about and could take several generations.

  4. Brilliant exchange of views.
    Myself (slightly over 50) I remember the man coming to collect the dried skins of the rabbits we used to breed for the dinner table!
    Modern times: A well-known brand of soft drinks is using the plight of the polar bears to encourage us to buy what is a totally unnecessary product!
    And lots and lots of Charities are shamelessly using the plight of children or animals to encourage us to give.

  5. I am entirely overwhelmed by the sheer literacy, intelligence and erudition of the arguments and theories postulated in this blog. (I even hesitated before I used the word 'blog' in the same articulate arena!) Although I am a left-winger whose thoughts are occasionally slightly to the west of Karl Marx, I find much to agree with and the commonsense attitude of the contributors - especially you, Alan - leaves me wide-eyed with admiration.

    I don't intend to add to the discussion because it appears to have all been said, but I think a little more eloquence like this might even get me reading the newspapers again.

    1. I am incredibly flattered by the above comment, and for Alan the praise is certainly well deserved as he always demonstrates an excellent grasp of the issues. I hope that this will not be the end of the discussion, as we all need to sddress the issues raised by our original email conversation. What do we do?
      I agree with some of the policies of the two main parties and disagree with others. I sometimes despair at the general lack of common sense and understanding of what people actually feel and believe. I am aware that there are huge vested interests which, if allowed free rein, will result in my grandsons inhabiting a despoiled and deplenished planet, perhaps not surviving at all. I am sure that many people feel as confused and conflicted as I do and just shut the whole thing out because it is too difficult. Hardy was aware of this in Jude the Obscure - 'because we are too many'. It is very difficulto know which of our actions are truly autonomous and which are merely conditioned by the propaganda.If I were a religious person I would leave it all to God, but from my secular point of view it seems that man has to make his own destiny and we are struggling to do this on the basis of false information.

    2. I am intending to follow up this post with something a bit more optimistic ... stay tuned.

    3. Patsy raises an interesting point here. When you agree (or disagree) that some policies of all parties, left, right or centre have or do not have merit (let's face it, every party must have some valid ideas and similarly some must be rubbish) what kind of political animal are you? I find this happens frequently to me. Can anyone think of a name for a new apolitical party which considers ALL ideas solely on their merits rather than how much they or their friends can make out of it, either financially or merely to gain kudos? Has there ever been an 'Honesty Party', I wonder?

    4. Well, Alfred - how about Grimms' Fairy Tales?

    5. I think it depends on how political parties formulate policy. I have no idea how Con/Lab/LibD do this. I do know that for the Greens Conference decides, but even this is problematic as conference goers are self selected.

    6. There is a very interesting passage in 'Alexander at the World's End' by Tom Holt. Basically,the Greeks are sending a group of people to form a colony in Asia Minor and are debating how the colony should be governed. The main protagonist suggests that the government should be formed of those who do not wish to be appointed. They should be obliged to serve for a set number of years and then are ineligible to serve again. Naturally his ideas are met with derision.