The art ofTHROWING AWAY

Sometimes there’s just as much to be learned from what we throw away as from what we choose to keep. Lisa Wollett, author of Rag and Bone, is an experienced mudlarker and beachcomber, which means she gets to see first-hand both the rubbish and the treasures that we’ve disposed of over the past few decades, whether it’s in Cornish beaches or along the Thames.

YOUR BOOK TRACES OUR HISTORY OF RUBBISH THROUGH THE AGES, BUT ALSO UNCOVERS PARTS OF YOUR PERSONAL HERITAGE. HOW IS YOUR FAMILY CONNECTED TO IT?

My grandad was a South London dustman in the mid 1900s, and my great grandfather a scavenger. Researching the book was a precious opportunity to hear more about the family, in particular my grandad and his ‘toot’, which was anything saleable salvaged from the rubbish. Pronounced like ‘foot’, it has its origins in the word ‘tot’, an old slang word for bone. Amongst Victorian London’s legions of scavengers – rag-gatherers, mudlarks, toshers and pure-finders – were the bone collectors or ‘tot-pickers’. As my grandad’s rounds included his own street, my nan would hear the front door and go out into the passage to see the toot he’d dropped off. My mum remembers everything from iced coconut to paving slabs and a tweed armchair.

I learned a lot from what those generations didn’t throw away, and their attitudes to reuse, repurposing and repair.

THE EVER-INCREASING URGENCY OF CLIMATE CHANGE HAS PUT OUR WASTE MANAGEMENT AND RECYCLING SYSTEMS TO THE FOREFRONT OF BOTH NEWS COVERAGE AND HOUSEHOLD CONVERSATIONS. WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE SHOULD LEARN FROM WHAT WE THROW AWAY?

I learned a lot from what those generations didn’t throw away, and their attitudes to reuse, repurposing and repair. While my nan altered clothes and saved every button in her wonderful button box, my grandad ‘side-to-middled’ worn carpets and repaired everything, including resoling the family’s shoes using discarded factory machine belts. Time and again I found myself thinking how astonished he would be at the contents of our bins today.

From recent conversations with family and friends, I think many of us became more aware of this in the early stages of lockdown. We thought more carefully about what we bought, wasted and threw away.

HAS WHAT YOU’VE FOUND WHILE BEACHCOMBING OR MUDLARKING AFFECTED THE WAY YOU LOOK AT YOUR OWN THINGS? ARE YOU NOW MORE OR LESS PRONE TO GET RID OF THEM?

In Cornwall, many of the bays I visit are sandy and idyllic, some windswept and remote, and after storms it can be a shock to find them covered with plastic. Like so many other beachcombers, I find wave-worn toothbrushes, single-use cutlery, the balls from roll-on deodorant, party poppers with the bite marks of fish.

For me, the discord in finding everyday household objects so out of place on a beach can be particularly revealing, as in our own lives those same things are so familiar they’ve become invisible. It’s made me more aware of the plastic in my own life, and more likely to consider where something will end up before I buy it.

It’s made me more aware of the plastic in my own life, and more likely to consider where something will end up before I buy it.

HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT SOMETHING YOU OWN (OR FIND) IS GOING TO BE WORTH KEEPING?

With the finds I often had no idea at first, as they started out as a mystery – and only later turned out to be interesting or relevant to a story I wanted to tell.

One favourite was a thimble that dates from 1450-1600, which fits perfectly and is worn beautifully smooth on the inside where it’s slipped on and off a finger. A rather nondescript terracotta ring turned out to be from a 17th century sugar mould, which produced the tall conical sugar-loaves that sold in the shops. And I found an 18th century crotal bell (worn on horse harnesses) on the beach where a village was lost to the sea. So there are often two stages to the treasure hunt: the initial discovery, and then finding out what it is.

This can also be true of the plastic. Some of it is decades old: 1970s Smarties lids, an Action Man ‘hard hand’ (1966-73), a plastic dog that came free with Kellogg’s Coco Pops in 1973. Other plastic finds are poignant, and I keep them for what they represent: plastic plants and animals, a plastic dinosaur on a plastic landscape.

When my children were younger it did make it difficult to tell them they couldn’t drag something home from the beach and keep it under their bed.

NOW MORE THAN EVER, WE’RE ALL SO AWARE OF THE IMPORTANCE OF LETTING GO OF THINGS IN THE RIGHT (AND MOST SUSTAINABLE) WAY. WHAT ARE YOUR TIPS?

In researching Rag and Bone, I kept seeing the importance of decisions made long before we choose the best method of disposal. We do need to take more care in personal choices around what we buy, and dispose of these things as sustainably as possible. But the problem runs much deeper than that.

We need to rethink the whole way we design and manufacture goods, taking into account a product’s entire lifecycle so waste is minimised. When goods are designed for reuse, repair, recycling or remanufacture, those materials are then recovered or kept in use – rather than ending up in landfill, incinerators or our oceans. And those changes require the same degree of creativity and ingenuity that got us here in the first place.

All photography courtesy of Lisa Wollett.