When Britain was Zero Waste

Having studied Home Economics in the distant past and always being fascinated by social history, I love stumbling over relevant articles on the internet. I’m also a big fan of the BBC series ‘Call the Midwife’. Apparently some have accused the BBC of presenting a sanitised version of poverty in the 1950s. However, if you search for photographs from the era you will see that they are portraying history accurately.

You see in days gone by, people did not produce much rubbish. They did not buy packaged goods, they shopped every day and only bought what they needed for the next day or so. They did not have the means to keep food fresh for longer, there were no refrigerators or freezers in general use. They also used everything up until it disintegrated – if you look at figures from the period, you will notice that they practically never threw textiles away. What a contrast to today!

Consequently, the streets were clean too. Those were the days when there was a sense of local and national pride. People cared about where they lived and everybody knew you, so you would not dare to drop litter for fear of the local bobby catching you or your class teacher!

Let’s think about it for a second….

  • Milk was delivered in churns and poured into jugs, or once milk bottles arrived – these were returned to be washed and used again. The only waste being the foil tops which were recycled.
  • Fruit & vegetable scraps were composted, along with eggshells and tea leaves
  • Soot from the fire was dug into the ground as fertiliser
  • Groceries were bought unpackaged for the large part and paper bags could be burnt on the fire
  • Cooked food leftovers were probably forced upon family members (i.e. you must eat everything on your plate or children will starve in Africa!) Or fed to pets.
  • Clothing was worn until it wore out and even then, useful fabric was cut out for re-use
  • Newspapers were reincarnated as toilet paper or fire starters
  • There were no luxury appliances needing to go to landfill and I’m pretty sure people kept their mattress for a lifetime. They recovered and repaired their chairs.
  • Anything else was sold to the rag and bone man who called at the door
  • Other hawkers were common visitors to the door – people to sharpen knives, repair china, patch pots and pans and more.

As our waste has increased, people have moved from using biscuit tins for waste in the 1900s, to medium sized metal bins in the 1950s and on to the larger plastic bins we use today, in the 1960s. In fact, did you know the name ‘dust bin’ was derived from the fact that these bins contained mostly dust or ash from fireplaces?

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