Tread Lightly On The Earth

Are Mill Roaders’ carbon footprints as light as they can be?


Reduce, Recycle, Repair, Repurpose, Reuse:

Five words beginning with ‘Re’, the importance of which we are only just acknowledging.

A while ago, in the last century, the economist John Maynard Keynes theorised that – in hard times governments should keep people in work, they spend money, money flows and wealth grows. The brave new consumer world of stuff and cool fashion was born and later it became within everybody’s grasp. The 1960s were silly and fun; in between recessions fashion and technology moved with speed, style and impact. In-built obsolescence was not a problem, it was an asset which could propel the whole economic eco-system. So what if cheap goods break; buy another – it will be the more advanced version after all. Fashion comes and goes, so why worry if your clothes fall apart in the wash. Few people worried about what happened to discarded goods until one day, not all that long ago, we realised that plastics are poisoning the oceans and fossil fuels are poisoning the atmosphere.

How is Mill Road rising to the challenge of keeping its economy alive while preserving the planet’s eco-systems? Are the five ‘R’s on our radar? On this page we take a look and invite your comments.

Sling it out and forget about it?

Some of our recycling giants have their roots with individuals or in family businesses engaged in the small streetwise activities of clearing-up and selling-on in those early days.

Biffa the second largest recycling company in the country started in 1912 with a lad called Biffa who collected ashes and clinkers and sold them on to be used as a material in the construction of pathways. Amey’s founder however, was up-market in comparison; he was a quarryman who supplied kerbstones for city streets in Oxfordshire. While the company which morphed into Palm Recycling was founded in 1872 and collected used paper and turned it into fresh paper and cardboard.

It would be inaccurate to call them all early recyclers, to be precise Mr Biffa was a re-purposer, Mr Amey was just a businessman not involved in recycling, while our Palm founder (and I have not discovered his name yet) was a true recycler.

City Recycling goes to Waterbeach

Mill Roaders’ recycling is processed either by Amey or Palm. If you put your recycling into one of the City Council household bins it will be collected by the City Council and taken up to Amey’s recycling site at Waterbeach. If you use the Gwydir Street collection point it will also go to Waterbeach but if you take your recycling to Sainsbury’s it will processed by Palm in Kings Lynn.

Recycling is Recycling not Alchemy

All recycling companies are open to criticism. There are reports of companies fly-tipping on private land while most of the large companies only recycle around 50% of the material they collect. The surplus is put into landfill, or incinerated. This seems disappointing but as Jeff Rhodes Head of Environmental and External Affairs for Biffa, says, “We are recyclers not alchemists”. In 1917, a piece of paper was obviously a piece of paper, a piece of horse poo was obviously horse poo, and a clinker was a clinker. These days it is not always possible to know what material an item is made out of and we are coping with a host of objects made from composite materials as well as large quantities of plastics which were in their infancy until the post-war boom.

What on Earth is it?

Now the biggest problems facing recyclers are, identification of substances (for which they use scanners), sorting and keeping up with the sheer volume of material needing to be processed. Rhodes wants to encourage manufacturers to be more responsible in the materials they use and the information which they pass on to shoppers who will then be able to sort and dispose of packaging responsibly at source.

In 1917 keeping the city neat and tidy was common sense, albeit hard work but in 2019 it has become highly technical and scientific and it is sometimes a counter-intuitive activity. It is clear however that recycling companies have more to recycle than they have capacity to work with, therefore effort can be made to reuse items at source and we should all try to avoid using materials that are hard to recycle. As individuals we do have the capacity to make a difference by reducing and reusing.

NB: Amey do things on an industrial scale, so that means waste is travelling long distances to sophisticated central depots. Some City refuse collectors think this is environmentally irresponsible as collection carts use diesel fuel.

Amey’s response is that collection is the responsibility of their customers. Interestingly both Amey and everyone else we have spoken to agree that a key strategy to address these complex problems is to use less and to try to re-use.

Charlotte de Blois

Recycling challenges

We asked John Twitchen from Amey ‘What are the greatest challenges facing recycling companies at the moment?’

This was his reply.

There are three key challenges facing recycling companies:

  •  Quality – the quality of material is becoming more critical as the volume of recyclables collected has increased; a recycling bin with non-recyclable materials in it could contaminate an entire vehicle’s worth of recycling, causing problems at Materials Recycling Facilities or for re-processors.
  • Markets – traditional markets are changing and demanding higher quality input materials, but there are still not enough manufacturers using recycled content in their products, and brands are not compelled to use recycled materials in their products.
  • Recyclability – many products are made from a range of different materials, including ‘composite’ products such as cartons which can combine paper, plastic and aluminium; these products perform important tasks but are very hard – and expensive – to recycle and brands are not compelled to improve or fund this.

As consumers we can all do much more to reduce our waste, reuse more items, recycle more products and buy recycled products, whilst ensuring the right waste ends up in the right place and companies like Amey can ensure
as much as possible is recycled back into quality products. And we will always do our best to recover as much of the material and energy value in the waste left over after recycling – which is why we would like permission to build and operate an Energy from Waste (EfW) facility at the Waterbeach Waste Management Park.

Energy from Waste

Amey’s proposed EfW Waterbeach incinerator

EfW has proved to be highly controversial; Amey’s recent plans being rejected by Cambridgeshire County Council.

As a non-aligned, non-political, group we were not (and are not) involved in the arguments for and against Amey’s proposed EfW Waterbeach incinerator. Read below an make up your own mind.

Read more:

What goes in which bin?


How good are you at recycling? Do you send recyclables to landfill? Or do you contaminate your recycling bin with non-recyclables? Check out your knowledge and expertise courtesy of the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire domestic waste and recycling service.


And when are my bins collected?

Thanks to the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire domestic waste and recycling service. you can click through, enter your postcode and print out your own bin collection calendar. And you now have even more options:

  • Print your next 12 collection dates
  • Add a calendar to your Android device
  • Add a calendar to your Apple device
  • Bookmark the bin calendar page or add it to your favourites to easily access your bin collection dates

All that glisters is not gold

Luxury wrapping paper and packaging reserved for up-market foods cannot be recycled easily.

In that quiet time between Christmas and New Year I started my first ever petition!

As I sat amongst a growing pile of spent wrapping paper I started to wonder ‘why does metallic wrapping paper still get made? It’s destined for landfill’.

Do the scrunch test – if your wrapping paper springs back rather than staying scrunched, it is probably made of metallised plastic, and can not be recycled.

Food wrapping made from paper at least serves a purpose in keeping our fuel sanitary but those rigid liners from supermarkets, which come in a variety of colours, can be awkward to get rid of. Protected parcels of food make food look at its most appealing when it’s displayed against black, apparently. Black is regularly reserved for the ‘finest’ and ‘extra special’ delicacies – but black plastic can be recycled in only one centre in the UK. Realistically this means that it won’t be recycled at all.

As customers it’s in our power to let our favourite suppliers and retailers know that we want to see change soon. Saving the planet seems like such a huge task but let’s play our part and do little things locally and also help make sure there’s no market for things that cannot be recycled.

The people who make what we consume are all about keeping themselves in profit, that’s their bottom line. Designing a product to be recycled can take time and effort which means there is less profit attached. But as fellow consumers on planet earth we have different priorities. We must let the manufactures know our values by choosing recyclable products in recyclable packaging.

Daisy Zoll, Romsey Resident

Click to see (and sign) Daisy’s petition.

B+Q Takes Black Plastic Plant Pots to reuse

Black plastic is notoriously difficult to recycle: it confuses recycling plants’ optical scanners

Following information outlined in a letter in the Royal Horticultural Society magazine, I went to B&Q with a bag full of black plant pots. There was no obvious place to leave them so I asked a member of staff who took them from me!! Yes, success!! They don’t seem to be advertising the service so tell everyone you know. It saves making the trip out to Scotsdales.

Sheila Cane, Petersfield Resident

10x10x10 Greene King Bottles sitting by a wall

It is not easy being green… especially when you are up against a big company. We run a pub in Covent Garden near the Petersfield end of Mill Road and we receive weekly deliveries from the Greene King depot in Bury St Edmunds.

Therefore every week hundreds of glass bottles arrive at our door, and every week hundreds of glass bottles go into the glass collection bin because Greene King will not take them back! I have asked the reasoning behind this policy time and time again but I have yet to receive a satisfactory explanation.

Perhaps I am doing Greene King a disservice and it is actually more ecologically sound to recycle the glass, make new bottles, deliver them to the plant and fill them than to sterilise them and reuse existing bottles. I just wish that someone would give me a satisfactory explanation.

Eileen O’Brien, Landlady of the Six Bells, Covent Garden

Street Cleaning, Then and Now

Mill Road’s favourite Street Cleaner, local historian Allan Brigham says: “Long before the town authorities employed their own dustmen and street cleaners, there were bound to have been boys hanging around Mill Road hoping to pick up horse poo, or for a penny, clean in front of your house or where you planned to cross the road.

Allan Brigham, local historian and street-cleaner (retired)

Before the sewers were installed in the 1870s there would certainly have been night soil carts collecting the contents of your chamber pots, and rag and bone men hoping for some rich pickings. When I worked at the Depot there was still a scrap merchant operating along the edge of the site.

Cambridgeshire Collection PC.Dus.K17.16689 The wonderful Cambridgeshire Collection at the Central Library is the source of this photograph of early street cleaners; the women in this 1917 photograph were of course doing voluntary work in the First World War whilst the corporation dustmen were fighting overseas.

We must remember that before the 1950s many people in Mill Road were still living in extreme poverty; they would have re-used everything;
every scrap of food, every item of clothing and anything else that they might possess. They owned very little. Only during the 1960s did people have more ‘stuff’. When I started work here, there were no Charity Shops and now Romsey has three and Petersfield two, these shops are full of our surplus china, clothes, books and so on.They do a great job helping us all to recycle”.

Readers interested in this topic should certainly visit the Cambridge Museum of Technology down by the river, now it has reopened.

Cambridge Museum of Technology

There you will see the best surviving example of a 19th century waste recovery and wastewater pumping station which pumped water under the river to Milton to grow vegetables.

Allan Brigham and Caro Wilson, Mill Road History Society

All Wired Up and Never to be Used

Seven years ago when my mother died and my sister became Commanding Officer of operation dismantle mother’s house; charity shops did not generally accept donations of electrical goods.

After many months of sifting and sorting, my sister uncovered various not-yet-used electrical items still in their sealed-boxes.

My mother, who had grown-up motherless during the great depression of the 1930s, could not resist a bargain, especially if it half-promised her the power to create a cosy secure home for her babies. Thus she was vulnerable to the mantras, spells and ditties of the 1960s ad men and chasing consumer goods was something that she secretly aspired to do. She bought a vacuum cleaner quite early in the 1950s which was still fully functioning at the time the Beatles released their first hit (15 years later).

Record players, televisions, fridges and even a washing-up machine followed. At that stage she was not particularly keen on having a toaster, an electric kettle or even a hairdryer. She saw them as potentially dangerous as she was fearful of mixing electricity with water or seeing naked elements.

She made up for it later. And as the global economy expanded, she bought ‘spare’ kettles, ‘spare’ toasters and all the ‘essentials’ which were the items we found in the sealed boxes.

It seemed inevitable but sad that these objects were to be laid to rest in landfill, never having left their packets or been used at all but having travelled half-way around the world to reach their tomb. As we finished our clearing however, I found one charity shop – I think it was Cancer Research – that was prepared to take electrical goods as long as they were still in their original boxes and had obviously not been used.

Have things changed?

Seven years on have things changed? Here I outline the current policies of our Mill Road charity shops. The new Wood Green Animal Welfare shop, opposite the former site of the Sally Ann shop, on the corner of Mackenzie Road, accepts electrical goods but they need to be taken to their other branches for Portable Appliance Testing (PAT). PAT testing is a legal requirement which prevents the resale of dangerous equipment. The Wood Green shop does not have a member of staff qualified to do this at the moment but an existing staff member is going to undertake the training very soon.

The Salvation Army shop, which is now in Tenison Road, is not taking electrical goods at the moment, as they are overloaded. Manager Charmaine reports that they get a steady stream of electrical donations and occasionally they get items that fail the PAT test.

The Cats’ Protection shop is not taking them at the moment – it has become a volunteer led shop – which means that it is difficult for Jenny, one of their volunteers, to squeeze PAT training into her schedule.

Romsey Mill does accept them, they have a fully PAT trained volunteer and they are currently assessing the cost of training a second person. They reported that putting a person through training and buying the necessary equipment costs about £500.

As people are becoming more sensitive to the need to recycle, the volume of donations is increasing and as an organisation they wish to rise to the challenge.

Liz Diamond, Romsey Mill’s manger, explained that women’s clothes and small electrical products were their charity shop’s life blood as styles in both come in and go out of fashion, quite rapidly.

Arthur Rank was taking donations of electrical goods until very recently, but not at the moment, their PAT tester is only able to give a couple of hours a week and so they need to train an additional member of the team before they can start accepting goods again.

Liam Callcut is in charge of this side of Arthur Rank’s operations. He reports that about 90% of donations pass the PAT test and those that fail are most likely to be items with heating elements or really old items.

Not all items that pass the PAT test are re-saleable however. Really cheap products, a toaster for example, which may cost no more than £10 new is not going to sell for very much, particularly if it is donated complete with the remains of its previous owner’s crumby breakfast. As all donations are accepted, another solution other than sale has to be found for battered hairdryers and crumby appliances.

Until recently that would have been a drive up to Milton Household Recycling Centre for disposal but now unsaleable goods are sold to an organisation called Genesis. It is good that the charity now gets money for items that in the past would not have brought in income but there may be ethical concerns. The items are sent to Africa where they are often broken down with highly toxic chemicals in attempt to extract traces of gold and presumably copper too. This process must leave a large residue of broken and eroded plastic which is unhealthy.

Liam does sell really old items through Amazon and ebay as vintage pieces but clearly states in their listings that these items are not intended for use. It is surprising that even with electrical goods, retro can still be chic .

Charlotte de Blois, Mill Road Resident

Freecycle, Freegle, And Trash Nothing

Our Treasurer, Richard Wood, adds, “The Trash Nothing app downloadable for your smartphone is great for giving away things you no longer need. We’ve disposed of a number of items that way, and picked up an unwanted Ikea wardrobe from another member.”

Recycling, Reusing and Repurposing in Bags

Monica Smith’s bags in The Sally Ann shop in Tenison Road

Mill Roader Monica Smith makes textile bags out of repurposed fabrics which are for sale at the Sally Ann charity shop in Tenison Road. People who buy her work will not only be helping the planet but will also be supporting the charitable work of the Salvation Army.

Our web editor adds, “Arjuna Wholefoods also sell study reusable (non-plastic) bags. And Taank Optometrists are happy to give their clients a free cotton bag.”

If you know of other Mill Road traders who sell or give away textile bags, please let us know in the comments section below. ??

How secondhand clothes can save student budgets – and the planet
Melanie Lehmann, 24, sells clothes on Depop to help pay the rent. Photograph: Ophelia Wynne/Guardian

Fed up of fast fashion? Start a revolution with your wardrobe by swapping, sharing and repairing clothes

This piece, by Sophie Benson in the Guardian, is well worth a read.

“… fast fashion not only has a negative impact on people and the environment; it’s also not that great for your bank balance. Our favourite brands encourage us to buy more and more and it all adds up. In fact, we now buy 60% more clothing than we did 15 years ago but keep it for half as long.” Read the full article here.

Water, Water Everywhere…

(And thousands of discarded plastic bottles)
Now, if only we could eat the bottle…

Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez is an inventor who, as part of a team working for
an organisation called ‘Skipping Rocks Lab’, conceived of and developed an edible water bottle. It uses a technique which was developed in the early 1950s with the purpose of creating fake caviar for those mass markets which were created by the post-war convenience-food boom. The new product, loosely called Moonshot Ooho water, uses a manufactured organic membrane made from seaweed which encases a quantity of mineral water. There is something encouraging about this initiative:- a technique which was born out of big business’s desire to sell, seduce and sell again, is now being repurposed to solve the environmental problems caused by mass marketing and mass production.

Bottle is probably not the correct word to describe these little capsules. They are bite-sized nuggets of mineral water which look quite magical, like squidgy transparent bubbles. If this invention becomes main stream we will surely adapt to new ways of drinking quite quickly. We will no longer sip or gulp but may suck and bite. I for one cannot wait to experience this new way of quenching my thirst. Gonzalez’s presentation is available on You Tube

This product has already been given out free to participants and spectators at the London Marathon and appears to have been well received.

Throughout our discussion on recycling, repurposing, reusing, reclaiming and reducing a common theme keeps cropping up; it is this — in the past small businesses had an advantage over larger organisations when they embraced the new, as they were agile and adaptable. Is small and imaginative still an advantage? We are lucky in Mill Road because we have retained small, adaptable independent grocers and traders. It may be that Mill Road will trail-blaze the selling of this new product, which quite frankly promises to outstrip the merits of cubed sugar and sliced bread.

Charlotte de Blois, Mill Road Resident

Also worth a read…

Reduce, reuse, repair, recycle – what does it mean in practice?

A blogpost from Antony Carpen, aka A Dragon’s Best Friend.

Responding to world record consumption of resources and materials
Click to view.

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