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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