January 2, 2012 by Tess Riley
Well, Happy New Year to all and welcome to 2012.
I spent part of the last day of 2011 clearing out my house, packing up bric-a-brac for the charity shop and generally getting everything in order for the start of a new year.
‘Out with the old and in with the new’, my grandma has often said to me, and while she’s usually referring to the changes of the seasons (or the arrival of a new character on Coronation Street… yes, don’t go there), it’s worrying to think how relevant that old adage is to today’s Western lifestyle as hoards of shoppers trudge off to the likes of Primark and Lidl to buy cheap, non-durable goods that soon need replacing.
Or take electrical waste. Consumer-high-tech industries have made it socially unacceptable not to have the latest, shiniest, smallest, largest, sleekest gadget. According to recycle-more, electrical goods are the fastest growing waste stream in the UK, with over six million electrical items thrown away every year. It is estimated that over half of these are still working or could easily be repaired.
As with every culture, thankfully a counter-culture exists, one that sees my inventive teen cousin sellotaping his not-so-new mobile handset together, that sees charity-shop shopping become an art form in itself or, heaven forbid, that sees people learning to fix their clothes and other well-loved belongings before abandoning them to the scrap heap. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, more exciting than sewing a button or two onto your old shirt (welcome to the exhilarating world of me), giving it a bit of a nip and a tuck here and there, and turning it, as if by magic, into a dress/man-bag/kitchen cloth… and so on, you get the idea.
Despite such craft-based joy, the fact of the matter is that many of us just have too much stuff. And even if you’re not bothered about that, you might well be a tad bothered at the lack of storage space in your home; the ladder leaning dangerously out of the garage also crammed with bikes, furniture and old toys; the shoes that pile up in the hallway until you’ve forgotten you owned whatever finds itself at the bottom of the heap; the jackets that vye for space on the coathooks, defying you to make them all hang up simultaneously.
Likewise, it is a bit ridiculous to think that you, the Joneses down the street, Mrs Barlby next door and the Scotts over the way all own a lawnmower, a ladder and a floor polisher when you probably only use these items on a monthly – or even annual – basis.
And this is where Streetbank and projects like it (such as Read It Swap It and Freecycle) come in. Such online forums make it possible for you to lend, swap or give away your items with ease. Here’s an example: two years ago I moved into a flat with a friend. We hired a van to take our clothes and books to our new flat but also used said van to go to several houses where we had arranged to collect unwanted Freecycle goods. We got: a double bed, two wardrobes, two seriously comfy armchairs, two desks, a clothes rail, a Christmas tree, a full set of crockery and cutlery, multiple pots, pans and cooking trays, glasses, mugs, napkins… the list goes on. The result? The donors cleared out their clutter, the items didn’t end up in landfill and we had fully furnished our flat for free. When we moved out, we gave the whole lot to another Freecycler who had just moved into an unfurnished flat.
Streetbank is my favourite of the various swapping and sharing projects as it has the added aspect that it is also trying to build closer community ties, providing a space for people to offer their services, whether it’s help with dog-walking, swimming technique or French GCSE homework. I like the Streetbank model as it goes beyond just providing a forum for exchanging stuff. I’m a firm believer in the fundamental role of community in making a positive social and ecological difference and I disagree with those who think you cannot have ‘community’ if you live in a big urban area. Whether it’s shopping locally, supporting independent cafes and pubs, taking part in local pub quiz nights or just saying hi to your neighbours, you can engage at multiple levels in your locality, wherever you live.
(On a related note, my favourite podcast of 2011 was about a Hackney newsagent whose shop was gutted during last summer’s riots. Left with nothing except the debris of a shop he had painstakingly built from scratch, he almost gave up hope of being able to continue as he had done and was set to leave Hackney until his customers, friends and neighbours rallied together, raised tens of thousands of pounds within days and helped him put his shop – and life – back together piece by piece.)
So whether you’re looking for a DVD to borrow, want to offer your cookery skills to your neighbours or would like a free TV/oven/trampoline, it is definitely worth having a look on Streetbank. While granny’s ‘out with the old and in with the new’ is still relevant, I reckon 2012’s motto should be brought a little up to date: ‘keep hold of the old, fix it up, share it about, enjoy and value the new without being complacent about it and remember that at the heart of all this stuff we surround ourselves with is a thronging community that will be there long after all that stuff has gone.’