Diary of An Eco-Builder

It's not what you throw away, but what you decide to keep - that's the real story of recycling
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The Independent Online

Have you noticed that recycling has been rebranded? The new logo, a simple green ring with a heart-shaped arrow, suggests that recycling is something we can all learn to love. Although this may well be true, it doesn't help that public messages about recycling are always focused on the same bit of the resource loop, the event of waste disposal. Some of the recent advertising has drawn attention to the entire journey of resources around the loop but the take-home message is the same: don't chuck everything away.

This is a shame because the most interesting side of the recycling loop is the design, manufacture and sale of products made from recycled materials. Although considerable government effort is going into developing markets for recovered waste (see www.wrap.org.uk), there is no campaign to enable or encourage consumers to buy reclaimed or recycled products.

We did our bit for the demand side of the loop this week when the walls of Tree House were filled with Warmcel 500, the insulation made from recycled books and newspapers ( www.excelfibre.com). It was blown in damp, then left to expand as it dried, ensuring that there are no gaps in the walls through which our precious heat might escape. We can also boast recycled aggregate and steel in the foundations, reclaimed floors and sanitary-ware (www.lassco.co.uk), roof-tiles made from recycled plastic ( www.e-b-c-uk.com) and a garden fence made from scrap metal. Useful online resources include www.recycledproducts.org.uk, www.salvo.co.uk, www.recycle.mcmail.com and www.greenspec.co.uk.

Perhaps the single biggest recycling resource in the UK is eBay, through which all the furniture for Tree House is being progressively sourced (our small Brixton flat has become a vintage furniture climbing frame, much to our cats' delight). eBay users, antiques dealers and car boot sale enthusiasts probably don't think of themselves as eco-warriors, but the more we value what we already have, the less we need to raid the Earth to make yet more stuff.

All recycled materials have a latent mystery. When I am writing in the peaceful study at the top of Tree House, what stories of murder and mayhem will seep out of the walls, and how soundly will we sleep within a cocoon of remaindered bodice-rippers? Re-use and reclamation make such questions even more explicit. Who relaxed on our sofa, laboured on our floors or soaked in our bath in the hundred years before they became part of our lives?

Such question are of great interest to the Staffordshire artist Christopher Thompson ( chris@regentst.fsworld.co.uk). Using reclaimed timbers from old potteries near his home, Chris recently sculpted a triptych of solid wood cabinets, each carved with a monumental front, including a copy of a horse-head from the Parthenon frieze. Within each cabinet, there are memories of the workers and their craft: a tea cup, sugar bowl and cake plate made from the best Staffordshire porcelain. The cabinets express the strength and endurance of the materials; their contents, the fragility and preciousness of the lives that have encountered them. They will be the perfect adornment for our Warmcel-stuffed walls.

To put new heart into the green ring of recycling, we need to imagine the never-ending stories of all the things we fill our lives with. Including, of course, ourselves. I plan to be buried in a woodland and so become compost for a Davidia involucrata planted at my head. This tree, commonly known as the handkerchief tree due to its papery blooms, will supply the mourners who gather beneath it with the perfect recycled product to meet their tearful needs.

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