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The murky world of maggots and stuff
20th January 2011
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My friend Julie Hill is a class act. She turned up for the launch of her brilliant book The Secret Life of Stuff in a glamorous green and black geometric print dress –  from her local Barnado’s. The shoes were a charity shop find, too. And the most memorable passage in her very readable book is when she’s hosing out her mum’s wheelie bin, getting rid of the maggots who have been profiting from the confusing collection schedule. As you’ll have guessed, Julie knows a lot about waste, and how to avoid it. Her book is everything you don’t really want to know about why you buy stuff, where it comes from, what happens when you throw it ‘away’ – and why recycling isn’t nearly as saintly as it seems. Well worth a read.

On a similar subject, from the other side of the pond, I’ve just caught up with No Impact Man – the New Yorker who tried to reduce his environmental impact to as close to zero as he could. Step one – eliminate all waste, by using nothing disposable. Julie must have got to him. Step two – no motor-powered transport – no planes, trains or automobiles. No lifts – despite a ninth-floor apartment. Step three – only eating food from within a 250 mile radius. And the final step really tests his long-suffering wife and daughter – no electricity.

The book’s good; the film is brilliant. The film is actually more about his relationship with his designer-label-and-Starbucks-obsessed business journalist wife than it is about his environmental impact. Which makes for compelling viewing.

No Impact Man, like Julie’s book, is a really revealing account of how we rely on stuff – and how, living in the society we do, it’s very difficult to get by without significant environmental impacts – particularly the combined and overlapping problems of carbon and waste. It’s not a bleak book, though, by any means – it’s very funny, insightful and self-deprecating. And it does, of course, prove the point that we all know, deep down – you need stuff, but you don’t need as much stuff as you think to make you happy.

I can’t help thinking, though, that No Impact Man got away with it because his daughter, at the tender age of two, was too young to protest, or even to understand what she was giving up. I would love to see my children’s reaction to rules like that. They wouldn’t last a moment. On second thoughts, I might try a few subtle No Impact experiments – it’ll make them think…

About author

Rebecca Willis

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