Minor British Institutions: The Royal Mail rubber band

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Years ago you might not have noticed the odd elastic band on the pavement. However, a decision by the Royal Mail in 2007 to issue red bands, nicely matching their vans and pillar boxes, has made them a more visible feature of national life.

The idea was that the posties who discarded them from bundles of letters would find them easier to retrieve. They didn't, so now we have much the same number of rubber bands littering the land, a fair proportion of the 342 million the Royal Mail issues every year – but they're just a bit more obvious.

For some, these bits of red rubber are a symbol of slovenliness; for others they represent a reassuring sign that the Royal Mail is still with us, despite its many tribulations.

There is nothing, one might add, to stop anyone picking one up and keeping Britain tidy. They make quite good substitutes for charity wristbands, and they also add a touch of glamour to an office worker's giant rubber band ball.