Life Before Plastic

We always seem to be looking for the next great solution for all of our global problems. With bewilderment, we stare at the monumental challenges ahead, trying to comprehend how it is even possible to find a solution for global warming, plastic pollution, mass extinction and all the other great issues of our time. The weight of our responsibility bears down heavily on some of us.

But maybe we have forgotten something important, something so simple yet which could help serve us the most. After all, most of the issues we are dealing with today are relatively new, it hasn’t always been this way. So, what lessons are there to learn from our past?

Naturally, the issues that concern me the most revolve around plastic pollution and overconsumption in general. Then, when I think for a minute, prior to the 1960’s there was no plastic pollution…anywhere! So I asked myself why.  It wasn’t because plastic didn’t exist back then, in fact, plastic had actually been invented early in the 19th century, over 150 years ago. At the end of the 1950’s however, something happened that would change our world forever. Dramatic improvements in manufacturing and processing of plastics saw the costs decline dramatically and combined with the abundance of oil, available enough to begin mass production. This is where the explosion of disposable plastic products began.

So what about before the 1960’s, before plastic pollution? Surely people had no utilities available to survive? Remember that there were no plastic straws to drink through or plastic bags to carry things in. Plastic containers were not available in any size for carrying takeaway food and not a single plastic water bottle could be found anywhere on the planet. How did they drink? How did they eat? In my mind, I see vast numbers of people laid waste in the streets, malnourished and dehydrated, like a scene from some apocalyptic war.

Unable to satisfy my curiosity, I decided to consult with the most famous historian I know, someone who grew up in the 1950’s and recollects those dark times. Someone who would be willing to talk to me, to help me understand how we lived in the time before plastic. This historian is, of course, my Mum (Note: Not actually a real historian).

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Interview with my Mum

First, a little bit of background to set the scene. My mother was born in Blackpool in the United Kingdom towards the end of the 1940’s (Sorry Mum 🙂 ). The eldest of 4 daughters in a typical North of England family. They lived with their Grandmother and numbered 7 people in the household. By all accounts a typical family for the time.


First, I curious about the weekly shopping. What kind of foods were available and how were they packaged?

The majority of the fresh foods such as potatoes, carrots, peas and the like were all grown locally and available seasonally. You could also get bananas and other fruits from overseas for most of the year round too. When a vegetable wasn’t in season we would have to buy it in a tin can or have something else instead. There was also a lot of dried foods available, usually in a big container. Whatever you needed, you weighed out into a brown paper bag. Items from oversea’s like rice and pasta would also be weighed and then packaged in a paper bag.

For drinks, we would have milk delivered to the house in a glass bottle. The milk man would collect the empty bottle the next day and re-use it. Beer bottles and soda bottles were also made of glass and when you returned these to the store you would get some money. We always went around looking for bottles to return!

There was also a meat man who would come around with fresh meats, again all wrapped in paper.

As for snacks and desserts, there wasn’t as much available as today but there were crisps and biscuits and sweets. Again, they came in big containers which you weighed out into a paper bag or the sweets wrapped in foil. We also bought preserves and jams in glass containers but made sure to keep these for later to use for making our own jams.”


Was there any ‘fast food’ available?

“Where we lived there was only the pub and the fish and chip shop. Everything in the fish and chip shop was wrapped in greaseproof paper with newspaper on the outside. I remember, if you saved all the newspaper from the week and took it to the fish and chip shop man he would give you a bag of chips for free! It was great!” 

Did you make a lot of things at home or was it all bought from the store?

“We made so much ourselves. Food obviously but also clothes too.  In-fact, I was almost 13 before my mother bought my first new dress from a shop. Prior to this, all of our clothes and underwear were made at home from material bought at the store. We also knitted scarves and jumpers and hats. The only new things we would get every year were shoes. I had one pair of school shoes, 1 pair of wellies and one pair of gym shoes for sports. If the soles wore out Dad would repair them so that I could keep wearing them until the next year.

Mum would also make all her own jams and preserves using fruits like blackberries and plums collected from around the village. The jams were stored in the glass jars we had collected throughout the year.”

What about cleaning the house and yourselves?

“All the cleaning products back then came in cardboard boxes or glass bottles. We used soap bars to clean ourselves and shampoo came in bakelite or glass bottle. We had to be careful not to break them! I remember that even our hairspray came in a refillable bottle which we filled up at the local store”

So, what about the waste, where did all this go? How much was there?

“Well, all the paper from the food was put in the fireplace and burnt to keep the house warm in the winter or to heat the water boiler for baths. Back then it was usually to only have 1 bath a week and of course, we had to fight to get the clean water!

As I mentioned earlier, all the glass bottles were returned for cash and we had our own shopping bags which we reused every week.

Our food scraps were never wasted and used mainly to make vegetable or meat stocks. All the leftover bones were given to the dog or burnt in the fire.

Tins and cans were squashed and put in the bin because we couldn’t recycle them. I do remember that the paper that originally wrapped the bread was used saved and used to wrap Grandad’s sandwiches. Once he had finished he brought it home and we burnt it in the fire. But the cinders from the fire we used to make footpaths or in the winter as grit to stop you slipping on the paths. 

Normally, our family of 7 people would throw away about 1/2 a bin a week of things we couldn’t use or return.” 


In Summary

It was great chatting to Mum and really interesting to find out how we managed to survive before plastic and the pollution it is causing now. As it turns out, a lot of the things they did back then are really not so difficult to replicate now. So whilst I am not advocating returning to the olds days, there are a lot of simple things we can take away from how we used to live, to help reduce the amount of plastic pollution we generate significantly.

  • The use of returnable or reusable bottles when possible. Refusing to buy plastic bottles when a glass or tin can alternative is available.
  • Bulk buying of goods either dry or fresh foods and learning how to store it so that it doesn’t spoil. This also makes so much sense because it is cheaper to do it this way.
  • By reusing and repairing things that break and not just automatically thinking we need to buy replacements. If we think about if we really need what we are about to buy this also makes a huge difference in what you bring home. This mean’s making a list before you go shopping instead of shopping on a whim!
  • And of course, by buying local foods and making sure to use leftovers you are reducing food waste dramatically.

All, good common sense idea’s that we advocate at One Brown Planet.

Today, now that things are much cheaper and more widely available there seems to be no need to repair or make do. We don’t seem to feel the need to be selective when we buy things or reuse or repair them because they are so cheap to replace. But it is this new way of thinking that is causing all the problems we face.  If we wanted to care and we really wanted to change, we can. We just need to take a leaf out of our parent’s book and live a life less complicated, with a little more consideration for the planet.

Check out our series on 52 ways to reduce your environmental footprint, for more tips on living life more sustainably.

 


One Brown Planet is a group of like minded people raising awareness and trying to make a difference for our environment. If you want to help you can. By sharing our stories and liking our facebook page you can learn about the impact that we all have on the plane. Then every day, just try and tread a little lighter.

Just remember that every single thing you do, no matter how small, will reduce your impact on the planet. That’s something to smile about 🙂

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