21st Century Womble

Do you know what a Womble is? If you were a child growing up in the 1970s in Britain, you certainly do, but I’m not sure how far their fame spread and whether they crossed the Atlantic to become popular in the US or traveled half way round the world to the Antipodes… I hope they did.

Wombles may have been the greenest creatures ever created… they were certainly well ahead of their time. They are smallish furry animals with an eye for potential: collecting what others perceive as rubbish and transforming it into useful items. The original books were written by Elisabeth Beresford (the first was published in 1968) but then made into a television series that was narrated by Bernard Cribbins. Ms Beresford was an author with vision – she created a group of characters who could save the world if they were in charge: unassuming grassroots environmentalists.

The motto of these creatures

make good use of bad rubbish

is one that we should, perhaps all pay attention to. Being dedicated to reuse and recycling is not a bad lifestyle choice. In these days of ridiculous consumerism (just watch ‘The Story of Stuff‘ if you want your eyes opening on the subject) I find myself becoming more of a womble with each passing year. It’s not that I don’t buy anything… I do, and certainly more than I need, but I try not to and I have started to look at ‘junk’ with a more creative eye.

We often walk the dogs the mile or so to the nearest shop to buy a newspaper on Saturday morning. A couple of years ago I noticed a plastic spatula on the pavement next to a newly built house. It was the sort that you use in the kitchen with non-stick pans, perhaps to flip burgers. I walked on, thinking that someone at the house had dropped it, perhaps when they were moving in, and that they would retrieve it. But no, the next week when we walked past it was still there. And the next week. And the next. No one had moved it, no child had picked it up to play with, it just sat there on the pavement (sidewalk) week after week, not broken, not wanted, but clearly not important enough for anyone to even bother throwing away. After about two months I could bear it no longer… on our return trip with the newspaper, I picked up the spatula. I brought it home and inspected it. It appeared non the worse for its prolonged residence on the pavement. I have plenty of cooking utensils and anyway it seemed a little unhygienic to consider using it in the kitchen. However, the plastic scoop that we used to clean out the hen-house had recently broken, so the spatula became a replacement for that… and it still is. It lives outdoors and, to date, has survived sunshine, frost, wind and rain. It saved me 99p for a new poop-scoop (or, more likely several 99ps), but really it saved the production of yet another plastic item that consumed fossil fuel and probably had to be transported thousands of miles for me to use. Apparently it isn’t biodegradable, so if I hadn’t picked it up, it would presumably have sat on or in the ground forever, or at least until it was physically broken up and eventually became unrecognisable.

It’s just one example of my transformation into a Womble, but I collect all sorts of other things… sticks to burn, cans and bottles to recycle, cloth (sometimes to use sometimes to compost), metal objects for recycling or reuse… not everything I see, but some things. And so my thoughts turn to those who only have waste to live off. There are examples from around the world: Guatemala City, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta. These people are true 21st century Wombles – their entire lives and livelihoods are based on things that other people throw away. Rubbish dumps become their homes, but are dangerous places – physically, chemically and biologically – and the people who are forced to use them are at great risk. What a choice to make – realising that your only way to survive is on a rubbish dump. And, sadly, it’s not new – in Our Mutual Friend Charles Dickens describes the Victorian ‘Dust Heaps’ where just such activity occurred.

What a world we live in – where some have so much that they simply throw it away when something new comes along whilst others survive off the objects that the rest of society has discarded. Where, for example cardboard is simply trash here in the UK for most people, but a valuable resource in the slums of Nicaragua or Kathmandu.

So, I encourage you all to embrace your inner Womble and see the value (financial, environmental, aesthetic, whatever) in the things that you plan to throw away, or see others throwing away. Maybe buy a few less things and make the things you have last longer, or even make use of things that other people have discarded… you may even find you enjoy being a Womble.

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  1. Wombles made it to Aus in the 80s. I only just remember them, but you’ve inspired me to nurture my inner Womble. =o)

  2. One, I just about caught the tail-end of the Wombles when I was little and loved the concept, and two, what a fantastic post! I think it’s surprising how quickly we adapt our resource use to our situation… I noticed this with myself. Last winter I had some very bad financial troubles when I couldn’t find a job and something went wrong with my benefits, resulting in me having less than a tenner for living each week after my rent was paid. It was a hard time, but looking back I’m impressed with how resourceful I was. I would pick up things like pens and hairbands if they were disregarded. I had like the one same hair band for weeks… But when I got a job and became more cushdy, I brought a pack of twelve and soon lost them all. I now try to be more frugal, but it is interesting to note how my behavior towards inexpensive but useful stuff changed.

    • I’m glad so many people remember the Wombles – 1970s ecowarriors! It is interesting what we can manage to achieve when under pressure in some way… and how quickly we forget!

  3. Aaahhh, the Wombles of Wimbledon Common. I remember them from my childhood too, as your first commenter said they did make their way over to Australia. Most British childhood things did, I think it is because there were so many parents of English origin here 🙂

    We ‘Womble’ a lot of things, and if we can’t we make sure they are disposed of correctly, not just left to wash into drains and add to the pollution problem.

  4. I grew up in Kenya in the early 80s and Wombles had meandered over there. It was so nice to be reminded of them! I shall be sure to pay more attention to the Womble within. Thank you!

  5. Alas, I have never heard of the Wombles, but they sound delightful! I will see if I can find them in their original books. I like your blog and the spirit you present. I think we all can be much happier finding uses for unwanted things, making cupcakes, and exploring our innate creativity. I remember talking to a friend’s mother that grew up during the Depression and her recollections were not about lack of jobs, but rather the fun and sense of accomplishment that came from making do and feeling clever about the process. Your knitted creations are delightful and I can see why they did well in the recent auction.

    • Thank you for your kind words… Elisabeth Beresford’s books are lovely… as a child I was always encouraged to read rather than watch TV, so whilst I have fond memories of the animation, I still have the books!

  6. I grew up watching the Wombles here in Australia as well. I hadn’t thought about them for years until now, but I think I’m slowly turning into one…

  7. oh yes, the wombles of wimbledon coming are we! being an artist of the type who says “skip!” in tones of rising excitement and wanders down the road picking up feathers and skeleton leaves (yes, the kind they sell for real money) i often get funny looks…but sometimes you make friends through it too 🙂
    thanks for liking my post at birds sing artblog, i am just starting to share how to make art from ticky tacky again, so i hope you drop by again 😉

  8. Reblogged this on The Snail of Happiness and commented:

    As I cleaned out the new chicken house with an old spatula that we found on the pavement ages ago, I was reminded of this post, written in September 2012. I think it’s worth revisiting it… I’m still a Womble, possibly more so as my girth increases with age!

  9. I loved the Wombles of Wimbledon! Would love my kids to see the series I grew up with. Thanks for the memories! xoxoxoxoxoxox

  10. I don’t think the Wombles reached the States, and if they had, I guess I must have missed them. Sorry for that because they sound delightful.

    I’m one of those people who uses my things as much as I possibly can, and reuses them too. Having said that, I have no qualms about throwing things away or putting them in the recycling bin, even when I know that they haven’t lived up to their full potential, because I honestly don’t have the room to keep something around because I might be able to use it for something else later.

  11. I can still sing the theme song, and I expect I’ll be singing it all bloody day now…. For me the key was that they didn’t just pick up the rubbish, they turned it into something new and useful.

  1. Five today | The Snail of Happiness

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