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The virtues of thrift

Posted 25/03/2012 by sevans

My grandmother never threw anything away. Milk that was on the turn was put to use bread-making, remnants of old dresses or curtains became quilted bedspreads, socks were darned regularly, yesterday’s left-overs were re-heated – sometimes with a tin of beans - and even the old bits of soaps were collected and re-melted into new blocks. Back then, that type of thrift wasn’t unusual. And, after raising a family of 10, my gran never got out of the habit of ‘make do and mend’.

Higher wages and an influx of cheap goods have made us more complacent. Far easier simply to throw stuff away and buy more than to bother with the effort of repairing it all – worse, it could even begin to look like meanness.

But ‘the times, they are a changin’’, as Bob Dylan used to sing. With the economic crisis impacting on individual purse strings, and the environmental consequences of our profligacy keenly felt on the environment, calls to reduce consumption and minimise waste are increasingly vocal.

Unused medicines are the latest target of this effort to reduce waste. Earlier this month, the NHS sustainable development director David Penchon is reported as saying in Metro newspaper that if we were to return all unused prescriptions still in date, we would save the health service £100m/year. An estimated £400m of unused drugs are handed into pharmacies or thrown away, Penchon said, while up to 80% of pills from GPs and hospitals are in blister packs that could be re-issued.

Food waste has been the other area coming under scrutiny, with households estimated to waste roughly a third of all the food we buy. Over on the research front, there are other examples of progress, with two stories in the April issue of C&I, for example, pointing to the development of self-healing plastics that no only repair themselves when damaged but also promise to extend the lifetimes of devices from mobile phones to medical equipment and planes. Another article looks at new legislation for recycling cars.

Moves to conserve and recycle materials are coming not a moment too soon. However, they will also require a change of mindset if we are to make real progress. Let’s just hope that we won’t have to go back to darning old socks.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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