1001 Water- and waste-wise ways: Make do and mend

 Upton Hall, where the gardens were dug up for vegetables during the war.

Upton Hall, where the gardens were dug up for vegetables during the war.

A few years ago, I spent a glorious early summer’s month doing research for a novel that involved visiting a lot of stately homes and gardens in the UK (yes, a tough job). One place that has stayed with me has been Upton Hall, which was put at the disposal of the nation during World War II by its owners, Lord and Lady Bearsted, who were leading lights of the Anglo-Jewish community at the time.

What does this have to do with saving water and reducing the tons of plastic waste under which we are sinking? When I visited, there was a WWII exhibition called “Make Do And Mend”. It zoomed in on the very many ways that local people recycled, re-used, patched, darned, cobbled or just plain went without during those years of privation during the war and afterwards.

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Habits of thriftiness, the notion that waste was morally offensive, threaded through my childhood, and one result is that I get genuine pleasure out of making do and mending. I remember an acquaintance bumping into me as I dropped off favourite boots to be resoled: “What a pity you can’t afford new ones!” she said. I gawked at her as if she had landed from another planet.

Truth be told, I’m a bit obsessive about recycling — also bartering, community exchange programmes, eating something from my own veg garden every day, charity shops and the like. I love occasional trips to the local dump to drop off garden waste — last time I did went, I came home with six gorgeous wooden frames that were being disgorged from someone’s car boot.

But saddeningly, these habits of thrift have become quaint, something your granny did, in the face of rampant shiny capitalism that requires we buy something new every five minutes, and chuck it when it falls apart ten minutes later.

 OK, maybe this is going too far.

OK, maybe this is going too far.

Unfortunately, it’s precisely this kind of magical thinking — that the planet can sustain infinite economic production — that has led to our current parlous position. I am starting to believe, or hope, that the next wave of job creation is going to involve precisely this kind of mending and making do.

Obviously, I do not want in any way to offend those for whom holes in a child’s school shoes spell financial disaster, or to pretend for a moment that poverty is fun. Yet many forms of recycling and re-using are enormously satisfying. For instance, I got a huge kick out of unpicking jerseys my mother had hand-dyed and knitted for me when I was a girl and reknitting them into scarves.

A great deal of thrifty practice is time-consuming — but it can also be sanity-saving. Simmering soups made with the cheapest fresh veg from the market and homegrown herbs, stitching up a drooping hem or darning a favourite pair of socks, decluttering and donating goods to shelters, running down to the shop for milk on a bike, bartering plants, picking blackberries from a hedge (to stick with the English nostalgia theme), sharing what you have: in a world that seems to grow nastier, colder and more crass by the minute, these small actions are good for our mental health. They’re also very, VERY good for the planet.

Some ideas for spring-cleaning, if you live in Cape Town: the Saartjie Baartman Centre is always desperate for children’s clothing and toiletries (families fleeing domestic violence are seldom able to pack); and the Oasis Recycling Centre is currently running a drive to collect second-hand goods. Dig around online to see what you can find for your locality.

Finally, a favourite tip; and a piece of good news. The tip: my friend Sindiwe taught me that to get every drop of juice out of a lemon, microwave it for 20 seconds before cutting it. The good news: when I went walking on the beach yesterday, FOUR people were picking up plastic waste as they wandered along. There is hope.

 Squares into blankets: better than “Made in sweatshop” any day.

Squares into blankets: better than “Made in sweatshop” any day.

Helen Moffett