Spectator: Lucy Baring on recycling

There is a wheel of anchovies in the fridge. It’s enormous. It has more anchovies in it than I have possibly eaten in my lifetime and it was a present from Zam’s brother who came to supper three weeks ago. I don’t use anchovies very often and nor, I suspect, does he.

Over supper, it emerged that Mark was about to go away for a few days, which is why I know that the anchovies were not so much a present as a clearing-out of the fridge. We were, in effect, the wheelie bin. This was confirmed when he popped to the car to get something he’d forgot-
ten and came back with a slice of brie, which was running for the door.

Better us than the actual bin, however. We’re told we throw away the equivalent of six meals a week, £60 worth of food per household per month-although the good news is that we’ve cut food waste by 21% over the past five years. Waste is the issue that highlights the generation gap between me and my mother like no other. My sister and I have been helping her to clear out a tallboy as this piece of furniture is now heading for one of the brothers.

We worked our way down from the broken bits of furniture and lamps in the first drawer, via the multiple draughts sets and chess pieces in the second drawer to the drawer that’s crammed with smallish bits of material, all left over from the dressmaking skills of my grandmother. Bella and I suggested that these might not be large enough to be useful, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it.

Among the larger items was a map printed on silk during the Second World War, the material ensuring it wouldn’t disintegrate, unlike a paper map. ‘And then,’ my mother said, ‘we made clothes out of them.’ You wore a shirt made out of a map? ‘Well, of course-all material was couponed, so you made use of anything you had.’

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Making use of things is second nature to my mother. For many months, possibly years, there was a bucket in the middle of the kitchen and a log by the oven. We never thought twice about them as we all walked round these items on a daily basis. One day, a helpful guest moved the bucket, which was wordlessly reinstated. It supported the dishwasher door and the log held the oven door closed. We never thought to explain these things.

Recycling isn’t something that’s been invented in the past decade. All wrapping paper is reused, all Christmas cards turned into gift tags. The line between recycling and hoarding is a very fine one and there have been times when we wondered if my mother needed to keep every empty margarine tub.

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But she hasn’t, as far as I know, made the ‘re-gifting’ error that still haunts Zam. On seeing his step-grandmother handing out presents on Christmas Day, he panicked and disappeared to his room to come back with two mugs decorated with holly he’d been given the previous year. On unwrapping them, the elderly lady gave them a hard stare. The following year, she gave them back to Zam, which he now thinks may have been for the second time.

Possibly worse is the bowl that some friends recycled as a wedding present but had never unwrapped enough in the first place to notice that their names and the date of their wedding were painted on it in large letters. I’ve come back from my mother’s house with a box of bits. I am absolutely not going back on my New House resolution not to hoard, but I couldn’t resist some small triangles of astrakhan, the bits left behind when my grandmother made a collar for her coat.

I know these will make excellent beards in a school play of the future. But, as one thing comes into the house, another must go out. I’m taking the anchovies back to Mark tomorrow night. I think he’ll be pleased.

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