Book Review: Rummage by Emily Cockayne
I’m writing this blog in what appears to be the only house in our Victorian neighbourhood which managed to hold on to its wrought iron fence during the second world war. Maybe the shame of the apparently unpatriotic owner explains why said fence is now embedded in a privet hedge, but their parsimony was probably justified. According to Emily Cockayne’s enjoyable and anecdotal history of recycling and reuse, much of the iron collected for the war effort wasn’t suitable for munitions but was quietly dumped in the Thames estuary where, rumour has it, it confused ships’ compasses for decades.
In contrast, the Milo Minderbinder of the years running up to the first world war collected used tin cans from British households and shipped them to Germany where they were efficiently recycled into artillery shells and later fired back at British troops – not the kind of ‘closing the loop’ that was intended. When export was eventually banned, tin can were simply thrown away or fed into incinerators as Britain didn’t have the required technology to recycle them.
As it stepped back through the eras Memento-style, Cockayne’s book really made me think about the parallels between recycling/reuse historically and today. Fake news (baseless rumours of soldier’s corpses being ground down for fertilisers), dodgy scrap dealers (owners of ‘marine stores’ seem to regularly end up in court for ‘unauthorised reuse’ of other’s property) and occasional explosions all feature across the ages. One difference is that the recycling industry of the past is rarely driven by altruism, more often by simple economics, with the only big public recycling drives occurring during war years. The two wartime anecdotes above illustrate the dangers of trying to ‘push’ materials into recycling/reuse – economic drivers are much better at ‘pulling’ the required quality and quantity of materials through the loops.
Where I disagreed with the author was her portrayal of modern-day recycling as something that the virtue-signalling middle classes do to salve their conscience over their high carbon lifestyle, evidenced by a conversation with one of her mates and an article by George Monbiot. I think this is both unfair and unjustified – some years ago, our local Council carried out demographically representative samples of the contents of recycling and residual bins across the city and found that 64% of what could be recycled was being recycled. That’s the equivalent of 80% of people recycling 80% of what they can recycle – in other words recycling is now simply normal behaviour for most people, not a Guardian-reader niche activity.
That niggle made we yearn for a little more macroeconomic background on each era to put Cockayne’s stream of fascinating anecdotes and descriptions of her collection of recycled oddities into context. But then I’m a circular economy geek and this book isn’t aimed at ‘work me’, whereas ‘holiday me’ found it a great read. I’m sure I will be dipping back into Rummage to recycle a few anecdotes for this blog.