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Page last updated at 15:16 GMT, Friday, 30 May 2008 16:16 UK

Making good use of the things that you find

Fly tipping in east London


Getting rid of unwanted stuff can be a pleasure - and decluttering offers the chance to acquire yet more stuff to take its place, says Lucy Kellaway.

Soon after my mother died, my father and I started the mournful task of sorting through her things to decide what to keep and what to throw away.

One of the first objects to go was the family biscuit tin - a tall cylinder that had once housed powdered milk.

At some point in the 1960s my mother had covered it with bright red Fablon to hide the words National Dried Milk, and in that state it served the family for four decades.

The Wombles, exponents of make-do-and-mend
What to do with this lot?

This wasn't a sign of poverty; it was a way of living. As the tin was air-tight, there was never any question of replacing it with something prettier.

My mother was a creature of her time, and it pained her to throw away half a teaspoon of leftover mashed potato.

I'm a creature of my time, too. So I put the tin into my car and drove it - along with all the other sad things we no longer wanted - off to the rubbish dump.

It was a strange trip - five parts desolation to one part satisfaction. The pity at throwing away all the things that my mother had preserved was tempered by the pleasure of the disposal itself.

As we've got richer, the joys of consumption have fallen and the joys of disposal have risen. Having a lot of old rubbish in the house weighs down on one's spirits, and getting rid of it lifts them - it's a sloughing off, a de-cluttering.

The average household now throws away a ton of rubbish a year, which is meant to be a source of shame, an environmental catastrophe.

But for me getting rid of stuff is above all an enjoyable leisure activity - a bit like a sport - and like other sports it's more enjoyable when you do it well.

Family fun

So on that day, I carefully sorted my childhood into various different bins: the biscuit tin went in with scrap metal, a heavy old ironing board with wood, and the old Green Shield Stamps blow-up dinghy - punctured on its second outing in 1968 - went with the plastics.

It wasn't that I believed I was saving the environment. It was that I wanted to give each object its proper burial.

Miss Widdecombe in 2001 - before going blonde
A look to emulate?

The other beauty of getting rid of stuff is that it leaves one free to go out and buy some more.

Not long ago I bought an incredibly expensive tweed skirt in a sale, but when I put it on at home I found it made me look like Ann Widdecombe before her makeover.

Buying it gave me more anxiety than pleasure, yet taking it to the Marie Curie shop took a weight off my mind and left a gap in my wardrobe crying out to be filled with something nicer.

The idea of disposal as an enjoyable pastime is something that councils haven't quite cottoned on to.

A trip to the dump should be marketed as fun for all the family, with all that running up and down stairs to the various skips and throwing things in and listening to the satisfying thud they make.

The Islington tip is one of my favourite places to spend a Sunday morning. Forced into new premises to make way for the Emirates stadium, it now occupies a vast space with plenty of room to park the car and obliging members of staff in fluorescent jackets.

Lucy Kellaway
God, it felt good when someone took a fancy to an acrylic Ikea rug and gave me 50p for it

When I went there last week I noticed that the other people - and there were a great many of them - seemed to be enjoying the outing as much as I was.

The expressions on their faces were so much lighter than the masks of determination you see on the crowded pavements of Oxford Street.

Some of them were not only throwing things away, but acquiring more stuff at the same time.

I watched a man step out of a brand new Range Rover, shove his hedge-clippings into the garden waste bin and then help himself to a selection of wooden planks.

He looked a bit shifty, which may have been because he was relishing the naughtiness of taking someone's else stuff.

Or maybe it was because he was married to someone who - like me - gets cross when her husband returns from the dump with a fuller car than he left with.

Just as I was leaving, a taxi drove up, bearing a man with two broken bicycles which he carried one by one up the steps to the metals bin, and then, meter still running, got back into the cab and was borne away.

Who will buy?

Once upon a time people didn't take their scrap metal to the dump in a taxi; a rag and bone man came along in a horse and cart and took the stuff off your hands.

As far as I know, there is only one rag and bone man now left in North London, a man called Alf, who walks the streets of Camden and Primrose Hill.

Boy gives bike wheel to rag and bone man in Bristol, 1939
An all but extinct breed

One day he told me that Alan Bennett had given him some old dining room chairs and that he had flogged them for 40.

Increasingly, though, Alf walks the streets and makes nothing at all. One of the troubles is that most women now go to work and so aren't at home to respond to his cry of "rag and bone".

I know what these women are up to instead. They are in their offices getting rid of their old rags on eBay. Recently I logged on at work and bought a second-hand Agnes B shirt for a fiver.

The seller, I discovered, was a senior City lawyer, who had bought it from Oxfam. Despite a monumental salary and long working hours, she chose to spend her spare time photographing unwanted Oxfam shirts and then queuing at the post office in order to recoup 5 of the initial outlay.

It sounds mad: only it makes perfect sense to me - buying and selling old things is vastly satisfying.

The rip-roaring success of eBay bears this out. Every second, 1,000 worth of goods are sold on the site, and even though some of this is fraudsters escaping VAT, that still leaves an awful lot of used handbags, lampshades and bicycles that are traded for the sheer magic of turning cast-offs into a couple of quid.

Car boot sales are thriving for the same reason. Twice I have filled my boot with junk and set out a stall in a school playground.

God, it felt good when someone took a fancy to an acrylic Ikea rug with an abstract design and a coffee stain at the corner and gave me 50p for it.

Straightaway I went and blew the lot on four nicely carved wooden legs for a chest of drawers. Now all I need is a legless chest to put on top of them.

Notting Hill's newest and swankiest Oxfam
Inside Oxfam's boutique charity shop

The only places that give me no recycling joy are charity shops.

Like a benign fungus, they are taking over town centres of Britain - there are now 7,000 of them and every time a local business goes under, yet another charity shop takes its place.

They don't pay wages, they get their goods for nothing, they pay no tax and they get a rate rebate so they can survive where no one else can.

Thus freed from the chill discipline of market forces, most charity shops persist in selling unattractive goods at unattractive prices.

Bude, in North Cornwall, is typical. Its last greengrocer went bust last year and now it has six charity shops. Most are fairly dismal: full of ugly glass vases and T shirts for 4 - a fancy price when you can buy them new for 1.99 at Asda.

One charity shop is solving this problem by making a huge lurch upmarket. Jane Shepherdson, who made Top Shop the cool place it is now, has turned her attention to Oxfam.

It has just opened its first charity shop boutique in rich Notting Hill Gate. I can't wait to go there: buying a second-hand Armani blouse knowing that the 40 will go to Oxfam and not to Giorgio suddenly gives one a good excuse to go out and buy even more clothes.

Swap shop

Sometimes, instead of lugging my old things to the charity shop, I put a piece of tat outside our house to see if someone will take it.

Very occasionally someone does, but mostly they don't.

Germany has a better way of doing this - on one Sunday a month residents put their unwanted sofas, cabinets and tables out on the street and a happy scramble for cast-offs begins.

This is one sort of disposal that I don't like at all - throwing away broken things that ought to be mended

Last week I dragged a pale blue metal bedstead onto the pavement, but three days later it was still sitting there unclaimed, so I went to the dump again to get rid of it.

This time I also took an 18-month-old printer that had stopped working, and was directed to a corner in which there was large convention of new but broken printers - all waiting to be smashed to pieces so that the fragments of metal could be salvaged.

This is one sort of disposal that I don't like at all - throwing away broken things that ought to be mended - only they can't be, because they were made with cheap labour in China, and no one here knows how to do it, and even if they did they'd charge too much.

In my mother's household everything was mended. Kettles, watches, clothes and TVs. Knives were sharpened and sofas were reupholstered. In one of the most exciting moments of my childhood, a beloved doll with a broken leg was sent off to the doll hospital and back she came, plastic leg safely back in its plastic socket.

But now if you want to fix something you have to do it yourself. I held onto my mother's sewing box, and have even darned a moth-hole in a cashmere jumper, though couldn't quite get the hang of the funny wooden egg that she used for the job. I've mended a rip in a dress and re-done a couple of hems, and find it oddly satisfying.

It seems I'm not alone in this: Argos reported last month that sales of sewing machines are inexplicably soaring. But I don't need to buy a sewing machine from Argos. I bought mine for 5 in a car boot sale.

Below is a selection of your comments:

And what about Freecycle? This online community is thriving and people can give away their unwanted items for free. Remember, one persons junk is another persons treasure! Instead of paying to have my broken washing machine taken away, a local guy collected it as he fixes them up. Perfect.
Andy Williams, Frinton on Sea

Agree completely, there should be more of effort to give away, or sell (for pennies) stuff that's perfectly usable but will go in the bin otherwise. This effort has to come from individuals more than organisations. We are far too quick as a nation to throw away stuff someone else could use. I say this having my eye on a perfectly good double bed my neighbour has thrown out and had sat in the rain for three days on his front lawn. A steam clean and a dry and it would be fine. Anyone have one of those?
Jacqueline, Aberdeen

I disagree with the point about charity shops. Maybe in London they don't have much to offer, but beyond the M25 you can find some amazing bargains (I've uncovered a silk skirt for 75p and cashmere jumper for 2.50 in one). The fun part is digging for treasures amongst the tat, which is also required on eBay. But in charity shops you have the bonus of helping a good cause.
Anna, Cambridge

My dad told me a story (which may itself by a recycled one) about a man he knew who wanted to get rid of an old fridge-freezer. It worked fine, not too old, but they were moving and so were going to buy a smaller one. He put it on the front lawn thinking someone would take it, 3 days later it was still there. Aparently the man then put a sign on it 'Fridge-freezer - 50' and the next morning it was gone. Seems that people really will only take things off of you if they think they can make a profit.
Rachel, London

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