Monthly Archives: December 2019

RIP – Re-use In Practice

On 14 December 2019, almost 15 years to the day since  starting it, we closed Royston Recycle – our local freecycling group*. The reason for this was quite simple – hosts Yahoo reduced their functionality, so our online group couldn’t, er…function. GDPR considerations notwithstanding, it was not feasible to ‘migrate’ (to coin a dreaded Universal Credit phrase) our members to a new site and, anyway, there are now alternative local free-exchange platforms to join.

The aim of freecycle/freegle** is simple – the free exchange of unwanted items to keep them out of landfill and in use for longer. That core objective directed our moderation of the site for the 15 years – set up with techy support from Dermot for many years; a role continued by Andy until this month’s close-down. But it did so much more than just reducing waste; locally it spawned a new initiative – Royston Repair Café – and it inspired personal friendships between people with a common cause.

Ultimately, the success of the site in meeting its aim has been down to the active and responsible  participation of its members. Co-founder Dermot was keen that the site should, as far as possible, be self-moderating, with few rules beyond ensuring items on offer and requests were ‘legal decent and honest’. We had to intervene once or twice over live animals (discouraged but not actually banned, and I learnt that re-homing frog spawn is discouraged by wildlife groups). The lack of rules was a problem for some. We knew that some members would get stuff free online and then sell it on via boot sales or selling sites. While people would complain about this apparent abuse of people’s goodwill, it wasn’t, in fact, against the rules. The big thing was that giving and taking had to be free of any exchange of money (‘the clue’s in the name’ we’d say ‘free-cycle’) but sometimes people would try to make a charge for delivery or ask for a donation to charity – both, however reasonable, against the rules.

Trust and mutual respect were an important part of the relationship between members of the group – we only rarely ‘advised’ particular people about the rules (this usually amounted to a verbal warning or putting them on moderation) when evidence had built up. More often than not the problem resolved itself; friendly reminders to the whole group were usually enough to get things back on track.

I always describe Royston Recycle as the most sustainable community initiative I’ve ever been part of. We spent no money on it, we never had a planning meeting, we attracted 7500 members through word-of-mouth. Since 2004 those members have posted 97,000 ‘offers’ and ‘wants’ keeping an estimated 45,000 items out of landfill.

In our increasingly materialistic and seemingly divided world, it’s been heartening to see people willing to give without expecting anything in return. I’ll never forget when, following a post from someone who’d been thrown out of their house, members piled in with offers of bedding, small pieces of furniture, and even a tabletop cooker.  I was always delighted when items, particularly for children – toys, clothes, pushchairs – circulated many times around the group, multiplying value for so many and saving the planet for the benefit of all.

I often quote a memorable experience from my own use of the Royston Recycle group. One Sunday morning my daughter asked if I’d buy her a clarinet on e-Bay. ‘No’ I said, ‘but I’ll post a request on freecycle’. The post went up at midday and by 6pm that same Sunday, my daughter had gratefully collected a clarinet from a local member and had an offer of a free lesson!

Although my other half always reminds me we need to get rid of stuff not acquire it, I have rarely been disappointed when posting requests for ‘odd items’ to do with my re-purposing/ upcycling projects – mirrors, brush heads, and clock mechanisms being just three examples.

Talking of odd requests’, one stands out above all others. The woman posting the ‘want’ later reflected that she might have asked the moderation team before she posted the request. And we agreed – it did generate a lot of complaints. Whether she fancied herself as a second Damian Hirst, I don’t know, but her request for a dead horse didn’t go down well. I think it was for an art project, and we never found out whether she got one!

So farewell Royston Recycle – you have served us and the planet well. Long live re-use!

*Royston Recycle would have been called Royston Freecycle but for an error at the registration stage. This mistake proved to be fortuitous when, some years later, the founder of Freecycle in the USA tried to ‘stake a claim’ in each local group. We refused his demands and simply had to remove any freecycle branding without needing to change our name.

**Freegle is the UK version of freecycle – started in response to the attempted north American takeover.

Also reducing waste in Royston area…

Royston Repair Cafe http://www.facebook.com/RoystonRepairCafe

Royston Free and For Sale Facebook Group  – https://www.facebook.com/groups/roystonfreeorforsale  [The local moderators of this group points out they allows things to be both given away for free and sold. Items given away may be later resold]

Royston Freegle group – https://www.ilovefreegle.org/explore/Royston-Freegle [The moderation team for this group are based in Stevenage. This group is only for rehoming items without any money changing hands]

Trash Nothing – Not so much a group but an easy way of interacting with a number of different freecycling/recycling groups https://trashnothing.com

Royston revealed

This time last year I was planning 12 monthly articles under the theme of ‘Hidden Royston’ for the Listing – our local lifestyle-and-community magazine. We agreed that 250 words and a photo would appear in print (delivered to 17,000 homes in and around Royston) and 1,000 words with photos would be published online.

I’d lived in Royston for 25 years but I felt I knew little about the past and present of our wonderful market town. So I wasn’t setting myself up as any sort of local expert – my first task was to talk to others who were. I wanted to uncover interesting (and probably trivial) facts that might get a ‘well, I never knew that!’ response from readers and leave me and others better informed.

Naively I imagined I could plan out a month-by-month writing schedule neatly fitting topics into three sub-themes – underground, after dark, and behind closed doors. Of course, it didn’t turn out like that; on one or two occasions pieces unravelled as copy deadlines loomed, ideas that I thought were rock solid didn’t develop, and some stories I’d love to have followed didn’t happen for reasons beyond my control. The series is now complete – 11 blog posts (and a Christmas quiz) are online for all to read (see links below) so I thought this was a good time to reflect on what I’ve learnt over the past year that might help others thinking of doing something similar.

Older and wiser – lessons learnt: So-called facts can be closer to speculation and need triangulation to establish some sort of truth. My research skills are limited and conversations with different local information sources often told divergent stories about the town. One line I pursued early on was that there was a tunnel from a High Street shop to the local church. A couple of local traders confirmed it; one even said they knew someone who’d been down the tunnel. An ‘authority’ later scotched the theory and said it was untrue with no evidence to back up the assertion. Information about another underground tunnel from a local hotel – Banyers House – to the same church proved to be more accurate and I was shown what was said to be the blocked end of it.

Another lesson learnt was that other people’s timetables aren’t your own. I spent literally months pursuing an ‘after dark’ piece, being reassured it would happen, only to give up after being passed from one contact to another. My last piece in the series – an after-dark-behind-closed-doors piece about the biggest local employer Johnson Matthey  took a long time to set up, because of security and other considerations, but the visit went head smoothly in the end.

A tip for anyone researching and writing a series – have an article ‘in your back pocket’ just in case a planned piece falls through at the last minute. I wrote one about reducing waste in Royston and was pleased to have it ready-written to meet a tight deadline.

Early on I discovered an easy way to add interest to a piece is to conduct a ‘straw poll’ to gather the views of local people. This applied to two pieces; one when finding out which High Street traders had cellars and how they used them. The other piece was on CCTV cameras in public places. I had expected it to be a controversial subject but after talking to a random selection of local shoppers I found that few of them were bothered about being filmed!

Most interesting discoveries: Some of my research didn’t result in a published piece, but intriguing conversations with knowledgeable locals gave me great pleasure. I met a local former furniture upholsterer who knew my father’s family firm – Arthur H Lee and Sons wove fabrics for domestic and commercial use – that closed back in 1970. I had a long conversation with a former neighbour who is an authority on the Royston Cave. We agreed that the cave was famous enough not to merit further coverage, but that same source shared a story about forged bank notes being printed in a local hotel cellar that was later confirmed by hotel staff.

Surprises: I wanted to find out what goes on behind closed doors at the local police station (it’s been closed to the public since 2013) and to investigate the use of use of CCTV cameras in public places. I expected to be told the information was confidential. While one or two answers to interview questions were ‘not for publication’, I’m pleased to report I was welcomed with straight answers to my questions.

For me, one of the most intriguing pieces focused on the origins of different road names around Royston . Much of the work had already been done by local historians – thank you F John Smith in particular – so the piece could be drafted in the comfort of our local library.

Ones that got away: I had a theme going around in my head along the lines of… lines. Something about Royston being on the Meridian Line, being the centre of important transport routes (the town is at the crossroads of two ancient trading routes) and talk about ley lines in the town centre. But sometimes you start a piece in your head and find it simply doesn’t work out on paper.

Another topic that never materialised was ‘dogs after dark’. A friend who is both a dog owner and an insomniac talked about the community of dog-walkers who meet at all times of day and night on the Heath with dogs in tow. When dark, they recognise each other by the coloured LED lights on the dog collars! My plan had been to join dogs and owners in the dark – sniff them out if you like – but I decided such an approach might be misinterpreted.

In conclusion, I’m very grateful to all the people who gave me their time to suggest stories and advise me on places and people to look for further information. I have always sought to get approval for pre-publication drafts and feedback suggest that subjects have been happy with what I’ve written. I’ve also been particularly pleased when my writing stimulates positive exchanges on local social media platforms – not least from the Facebook fan club of my interviewee at Royston Fire Station! Finally, special thanks to David Waters – photographer for some of the articles – his pictures considerably upped the quality of those pieces.

Read the Hidden Royston series of articles here https://www.thelistingmagazine.co.uk/category/community-news/hiddenroyston 

Gifting for our time

Today [Saturday 7 December] is Small Business Saturday. Since this always falls at the weekend, the most active way to show your support on the day is to go shopping and make sure you use independents wherever you can. I was out and about in our town centre and bought some bolts from our brilliant hardware store (I’m making a pallet wood bike ramp with a young lad), a jar of local honey from a market stall will make a great Christmas gift, and we enjoyed a pint in a High Street pub ( it was thirsty work!)

But thoughtful buying and gifting is not just for one day or just at Christmas time. As consumers we can make giving and spending decisions that are more or less ethical and environmental – we have the choice. Just as I chose to buy nothing on Black Friday and refuse to use Amazon (do you know about Hive – they support local bookshops). It’s also why I have a little library outside my house – I love books but also want to promote concepts of sharing and second-hand consumption.

Research by the Charities Aid Foundation around Christmas 2018 found that 44% of adults would rather have fewer gifts and see money diverted to a good cause. Last Christmas, a Mintel report also found that 29% of gift buyers bought presents with a lower environmental impact, and 65% said retailers should make more of an effort to promote gifts that generate less waste.

On which subject – environmental consumption, I recently discovered the wonderful graphic above via the Just Little Changes website. It’s self-explanatory, so what are you waiting for?! Let’s make giving meaningful and redefine the value of a gift.

And while you’re at it, why not wrap your presents in newspaper? A sheet with colour photos and interesting headlines is a great discussion starter and makes a serious point about saving money and the planet that might just last beyond Boxing Day.

Sources and useful information:

https://www.npr.org/2019/12/04/784702588/the-best-thing-you-can-do-is-not-buy-more-stuff-says-secondhand-expert

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/22/black-friday-consumption-killing-planet-growth 

https://justlittlechanges.com

http://www.buynothingday.co.uk

https://www.hive.co.uk

https://smallbusinesssaturdayuk.com