Sweat the Small Stuff

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(c) Chris Bonfiglioli

I have been working on BBC Caversham written archives with the Earth in Vision team and see that there is a wealth of ideas in the TV, radio and text archives which could help us to understand the way in which we relate to the planet and its natural resources. As Manager of the Orinoco Scrap Store in Oxford I am reminded every day that the small things we throw away pile up to have global effects. In my previous roles in NGO Administration, Management and Logistics Support for Oxfam, MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and Doctors of the World I have seen rivers of waste plastic all over the world. I have also seen places where there is a better understanding of the value of waste as raw materials as well as its ability to be harmful. In most parts of the world there are no dustmen there to take it away, so either it has value and is used or it just piles up and up. In Haiti there is land for sale which is made entirely by dumping waste materials straight into the sea in order to create new land, filling in coastal mangroves where young fish would be hatching and contaminating the sea.

The waste in the UK is often hidden from sight; our dirty little secret. And yet we have a lot of knowledge, some of which I have come across while processing files from the BBC Caversham written archives with the Earth in Vision team. I was looking at the documents from a 1973 episode of Horizon – What a Waste – talking about how recycling has been forgotten since the war, and how ‘the impending energy crisis’ [of 1973] might make bottle recycling more profitable and hence more popular with manufacturers. This was in contrast to the growth of the ‘one-trip’ plastic containers, which were ‘making appearances even in the milk market’ in spite of the fact that ‘eight out of ten housewives want their milk in returnable glass bottles’. This trend was for ‘the convenience not of us, but of the producers’ and ‘would mean thirty two million plastic packs in our dustbins everyday’: ‘plenty of profit for somebody but enough waste to stretch sixty times around the earth each year’. Could these early programme makers have dreamed of the levels of waste we face today?

Climate change and the polluting of the environment are huge problems but are caused by billions of small things which people do; drinking coffee made from the small plastic or aluminium pods being one of them. The man who designed these pods regrets inventing a way of generating waste by being lazy. So we all need to think about the small things we do and change them. The pyramid of waste starts at the decision to act stage; do we really need that new thing at all? Next if we really do, then we can choose to buy one which will last – this can be complicated, try buying a toaster or kettle with replaceable parts, made locally with no plastic in. Next comes thinking about how to reuse the materials in things. Perhaps the BBC archives can help us here too? What about all those programmes like Blue Peter that helped millions of kids to upcycle before the word had even been invented? I wonder what gems we would find there. You will need an empty washing up liquid bottle and cardboard toilet roll holder …. Or collect enough colourful bottle tops, some string and an old cork to make this charming snake.

Chris Bonfiglioli is Manager of the Orinoco Scrapstore which takes waste items and uses them for creative play, DIY, upcycling and saves the raw materials from land fill.