I was out walking with my son recently, and I pointed out where a row of iron stumps could be seen, protruding from the limestone capping on a low wall outside a civic building. As anyone who grew up in the UK knows, our built environment bears these scars from the early 1940s, when Britain found itself under siege and struggling to re-arm against the Nazis. Park railings and the gates of historic buildings were cut down and hauled away as part of the war effort.
Giving up their railings proved to have a positive effect on the morale of the nation: it offered visible proof that something was being done, and virtually everyone was happy to join in. Vast quantities of iron were collected – but the evidence for it being used is somewhat scantier. Chemically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with reclaimed cast iron: it can be melted down and made into things like bomb casings… but the historical record that includes photographs and newsreel footage of people cheerfully giving up their railings isn’t matched by anything showing said railings arriving at the foundries in places such as Port Talbot or Sheffield.
So where did the iron go? It’s hard to be certain: a few people have suggested that the government was caught out by the sheer quantity of material collected. They couldn’t use it all, but they appreciated the morale-boosting effect of the project and allowed it to continue. Were our park railings quietly dumped at sea? Some think so. As I researched this article, each anecdote that I followed up seemed only to reference another, with no hard evidence resulting: let’s just say that the dumping hypothesis is widely believed, among those who have expressed an interest. (The aluminium pots and pans that were also collected at this time do appear to have been made into Spitfires, however.)
Did the railing recycling scheme fail because supply exceeded demand? Perhaps so, but I didn’t want to complicate the issue for my six year-old. We just looked at the row of stumps sticking up out of the wall, and imagined the railings made into tanks and bombs – just as Lord Beaverbrook, Minister for Supply, must have intended.
There is another, still more complicated twist that I won’t bother the lad with, either – and for this nugget of knowledge we must thank what must be one of London’s most ‘niche’ interest groups, the Stretcher Railing Society (“For the promotion, protection and preservation of London’s ARP Stretcher Railings”).
A civil defence organisation set up in 1937, Air Raid Precautions (ARP) prepared for the worst. This was at a time when it was believed that the bomber would always get through. In consequence over 600,000 stretchers were manufactured, to cope with the vast number of casualties that were expected.
These weren’t very comfortable stretchers: just a tubular framework covered with a metal mesh. Their utilitarian nature was quite deliberate, though, as they would be easier to decontaminate after a gas attack.
After the war, some of those stretchers were upcycled into railings. At perhaps a dozen locations in London, new housing estates acquired railings with a distinctive ‘bulge’ at the ends of every panel: these had been the feet of the stretchers, and they’re a dead giveaway that you’re looking at no ordinary bit of fence, but a piece of our history. They’re every bit as much a sign of the war as the funny little stubs of cut-away iron that still adorn so many of our public spaces.
Very early on in this blog, I felt the need to explain why recycling doesn’t really work. We can’t afford to think of an item that we’ve finished with as a collection of chemical elements, to be reduced to their simplest state before reuse. If we do that, we waste all the effort, ingenuity and – critically – the energy that went into shaping our stuff. Because recycling is so often downcycling (reuse of the material with degradation caused by contaminants) we make life a little bit harder each time we send our materials around the loop.
McDonough and Braungart (2002) made the case for upcycling, which might be understood to mean finding new uses for unwanted items such that they don’t become waste. A key point here is that the upcycled product should have a higher value than it had at the point it ceased to be wanted by the previous owner.
If you accept that definition then most of the examples of upcycling that you will find will be art projects. Picasso’s “Bull’s Head” was an early one, made from a couple of bits of an old bicycle. It’s fun, and some will say it’s art great art (personally, I’d say it’s no Guernica, but… whatever).
This kind of upcycling does nothing to solve the problems of our age. Paul Bonomini’s “WEEE Man” conveys a powerful message about how much e-waste we each generate, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions. In fact, a cynic might say it serves to keep three tonnes of material out of the recycling loop.
If we all get creative and upcycle all our waste into art, we could actually increase the demand for virgin material. How much art does a society need? Taken to the extreme, we’ll be drowning in art instead of drowning in waste. This is why the ARP stretcher railings have such an important lesson for us: they haven’t been turned into something that’s only for looking at, and unlike art installations we don’t only need one: the more you reuse, the better. Also, in their new life they’ve been in use for something like seventy years, far exceeding the useful life seen in their primary purpose.
Perhaps upcycling needs a broader interpretation of value, where it’s not about price, but utility – but if we do that, there’s really not very much upcycling going on at all.
‘Liter of light’ – the people using old lemonade bottles to make improvised light pipes – is still looking good, though.