Can we look to the past to reduce our use of packaging?

I’ve just been sent on a trip down memory lane which got me thinking about how our shopping habits have changed in a way that affects our use of packaging.

Somebody showed me a Wombles video. The Wombles were fictional furry creatures that lived under ground on Wimbledon Common and loved to clear up rubbish, much of it product packaging, and make use of that rubbish. I’ll embed one below for anyone who either doesn’t know who or what the Wombles were or just wants their own trip down memory lane. There are a whole load of Wombles episodes on YouTube.

They were eco friendly! But that wasn’t the message I took from it as a child. There was no eco-friendly, be kind to the planet, be green message, it was simply about not leaving your rubbish lying around making a mess of the common! Don’t litter was the strongest message childhood me took from it.

This was in the 1970s, a time when we also had the keep Britain tidy campaign which was focused entirely on the same thing – don’t drop litter!

Milk bottles on doorstepA time when milk and pop came in glass bottles that were taken back, cleaned and reused. Not recycled but re-used, far more efficient than recycling. Sometimes your milk would arrive in a bottle so scuffed from the repeated clean and re-use cycles that it was almost opaque.  Were we all constantly clearing up split milk because the glass bottle had shattered? No! Yes occasionally we did drop a bottle and yes it broke, but we just got told off for being clumsy and to be more careful in future – we learned to be careful!

Then in 1976 came the big drought and we were all encouraged to fit showers, share baths, re-use the bath water on the garden and generally not use water unless we had to. Only the poshest in our village already had showers, the nearest the rest of us had was a push on hose thing that let us rinse our hair. The day my father fitted something to our bath taps that hooked onto a bracket on the wall and turned it into a shower was a life changing day!

And then there was pick your own fruit and veg in abundance. While living in a rural area meant we had more of these than city dwellers there were still far more everywhere than today. We took boxes and trays to use as packaging. If you didn’t take your own you had to pay for packaging and it was paper bags or cardboard trays. Even fruit and veg from the supermarket didn’t come on a plastic tray wrapped in more plastic!

Self serve, fill a bag with loose product shops where everywhere as well. My favourite was in Dagenham, where my Grandparents lived. The first thing we’d do when visiting was plead to be allowed to go down The Heathway and wonder at all they sold in that shop.  I loved that place – everything and anything all in big containers and you could just go and grab a scoop, fill a bag and buy the amount you wanted – flour, sugar, tea, rice, biscuits . . . all the staples and of course they had a few sweeties as well. And so much less packaging than today’s supermarkets.

Freezer shops were wonderous places where you’d go and buy enough food for at least a month in huge bags to keep in your chest freezer. Owning a chest freezer, at least in our village, was more important than owning a TV. Buying this way used far less packaging and less time and resources were used to get the food from shop to home. Even the local butcher provided for this freezer culture selling whole sides of meat and freezer packs that came in a big cardboard box which you then froze yourself.

So what happened? Were we more concerned with our rubbish and re-use then than we are now? I’m not sure we were. My mother wasn’t shopping in these places because she was concerned about the amount of packaging our shopping created, she shopped in them because they saved money, the lack of packaging was a happy side effect.

Can we go back to that?