Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: My Gran taught me to be frugal and not to waste a single thing

They came round the back of the house, hoisting the metal bins up over their shoulders. One bin per

They came round the back of the house, hoisting the metal bins up over their shoulders. One bin per household per week. That was it. Picture: ARCHANT

I was idling in the belvedere the other morning, gazing out over the rooftops, listening to the distant racket of the weekly rubbish collection, when it dawned upon me how much rubbish collections have changed, writes Martin Newell.

There’s been an awful lot of criticism of how councils process our rubbish but can I be the only one who doesn’t think they’re doing a bad job? Where I live we don’t have wheelie-bins. The streets are too narrow and the houses too tightly packed for the system to work efficiently. A new system, however, was introduced a month ago and in my street at least it does seem to be working. (There has ensued, naturally, an awful lot of why-oh-whying.) The reasons for recent changes are logical and sound, however. They are 1) the economy, and 2) the ecology.

The first is an obvious one. As our numbers have increased, we create far more rubbish than we once did. Supposedly, we have experienced almost a decade of “austerity”. So far as I can gather, however, it’s not the same type of austerity as we experienced between 1945 to 1955. Argue as much as you wish, but our homes, vehicles, regular holidays and our physical figures all attest to the fact that few of us have suffered any austerity worthy of the name.

As for the ecology, the second reason for changes to refuse collections, whatever the current system’s shortcomings, those in national and local government have formulated a way of making us separate our recyclables from general rubbish. It needed to be done.

Besides, in my area, households have been allotted a perfectly reasonable three black bags per fortnight for actual rubbish. After all, if you can only get the ratepayers to sort out the recyclables from potential landfill you’re at least halfway there. I now put out just over half a black binbag per fortnight, compared to one full one a week, 20 years ago. People will still moan about it, though. Well they would, wouldn’t they? Possibly because the new procedure involves a little more effort and thought than the old one.

Now, whether or not you subscribe to climate-change fears or the myriad other distractions of the concerned classes, we should not be wasting so much stuff. It’s messy, it takes up land for its disposal, and so much of it is completely unnecessary.

As is usual with me, whenever I attempt to divine the course of the future, I first study the past. My grandmother, a thrifty working-class Edwardian, lived for most of her life in a terraced house. I was partly brought up by her and so was privileged enough to study her methods in some detail.

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Like almost everyone else in those days, she kept a galvanised steel dustbin outside the back door. There were no binliners then. What mostly went into the dustbin really was dust: from the dustpan, vacuum cleaner and grate. Our old newspapers were either used to start the fire or were tied up and saved. Magazines were separately bundled up and passed on to other people to read. The bundles were circulated through a network of other ladies like my Gran. Sometimes, a bundle arrived for us, too. Thus it was that popular magazines, well into the late 1960s, often had a huge second-hand readership. Many also ended up in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms.

Kitchen scraps, such as bacon rinds and fat, went out to the bird table. Peelings, stalks and cores went on the compost heap, along with fur from the dog’s brush. The very crumbs from the tea table were gathered up in the tablecloth and shaken onto the back lawn. Only a few cans, fish and poultry bones went into the dustbin. Leftovers were usually turned into rissoles, bubble’n’squeak, or fed to pets.

Milk bottle-tops were collected in a jar; “Guide Dogs for the Blind,” explained my grandmother. Cinders from the fire were sometimes sprinkled on the walkways between the vegetable beds. The dustmen arrived once a week: men in ex-WD army jerkins, sometimes, wearing samurai-style headgear. They came round the back of the house, hoisting the metal bins up over their shoulders. It was one bin per household per week. That was it. And off it went to the tip.

If you were throwing something rather larger out, you either asked the dustmen nicely or maybe tipped them and they’d take it. It all seemed to work. But in those days there was nowhere near the amount of waste we have now. In fact, if we ever have real austerity, which I hope we never do, there probably won’t be this amount of rubbish either. Our local councils, therefore, are doing rather well.

The only quibble I might have with current changes is in the closures of certain council tips. Simple logic dictated that if we didn’t have the tips, many people would create their own by fly- tipping. This has happened. Apart from that, so far as refuse rationalisation is concerned, we’re going in the right direction: a promising, if somewhat late, start.