Picking Litter and Crushing Cans for Charity

For more about this story listen here to Penny’s 4LEGS radio interview with Patrick and Karla Hickman-Robertson.

When we retired to the Lambourn Valley twenty years ago, my dear wife Karla looked for a way to keep me out of mischief. She bought me a grabber on Amazon and set me to work keeping the streets clean between Eastbury and Lambourn in one direction and Eastbury and East Garston in the other.  Lambourn litter is no different from the detritus that befouls our beautiful countryside all over Britain – about 90% of it snack food packaging, plastic bottles and soft drink/beer cans. The first of those categories goes to landfill, but the other two categories can be recycled.

Tesco used to have recycling machines that gave points in exchange for cans and the points could be exchanged for Airmiles. Eventually we accumulated a sufficient number of Airmiles to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition to visit the Falkland Islands, something I had dreamed of long before the Argies made their ill-fated attempt at a land-grab. We flew to Lima, Peru, and then sailed to Valparaiso in Chile via Robinson Crusoe Island in the Pacific – the atoll where the real Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk, survived in isolated seclusion. From Santiago we flew over Tierra del Fuego to those barren, yet magical Falklands. But that is another story.

The trouble about Tesco’s recycling machines was that they broke down on an almost daily basis – I was relieved to hear that they had been imported from Sweden and were not another shameful example of British inability to make things that work properly. Eventually Tesco threw in the towel and removed them. So now we had a problem: what to do with the cans – we had too many for domestic recycling.

And then we found out that people will pay good money for cans, people who run scrapyards. Perhaps the word ‘good’ needs a bit of qualifying. The price of aluminium scrap is volatile, so a car-load of crushed cans can fetch anything between £12 and £50. We crush the cans with a crusher (Karla) or by heavy-booted foot (me), an unexciting task but one which counts as not-too strenuous exercise of the kind that elderly people are encouraged to partake in if they want to see the grandchildren grow up. We throw the crushed cans into those green canvas silos made for garden refuse and the car can accommodate seven of them. At £12 a load the effort is scarcely worth it, but £50 is rewarding. The scrapyard is the other side of Thatcham, so with the cost of petrol it makes sense to combine recycling with shopping. The economics of the exercise would make more sense with a pick-up or a farm trailer, with a load yielding £100 or more.

At the scrapyard you drive your vehicle onto a weighbridge and it is weighed. After you have dumped your cans it is weighed again and you present yourself at a guichet where you learn whether the price of aluminium is on the up or on the down. The money is transferred to our bank account and whenever it reaches three figures we send off a cheque to Mary’s Meals. This is a small Scottish charity that has a very simple aim: to encourage children in African countries to stay in school by giving them one hot, nutritious meal a day.

Apparently the reason most children in African schools drop out of full-time education is sheer hunger. Malnourished children cannot concentrate. The daily meal is mealie-meal porridge enriched with vitamins, prepared by the children’s mothers in a kitchen built by the charity next to the school. The mealie-meal is distributed to school kitchens from a central station with careful security measures to prevent pilfering – a sadly necessary precaution in areas of extreme deprivation.

The charity began its activities in Malawi and has now expanded into neighbouring countries. To me the appeal is twofold: the simple fact that raising Africa out of poverty cannot be accomplished without an educated population; and that nearly everything donated goes towards direct aid, with the bare minimum spent on administration – and nothing on state-of-the-art Humvees. Apart from fund-raising, nearly all activity is carried out by African volunteers.

Our modest contribution to this important work is vastly aided by another team of volunteers rather closer to home.  Lambourn’s Mavis Rose has corralled her neighbours in Long Hedge into can collecting and a large part of what we deliver to the scrapyard is down to their efforts. I would like to take this opportunity of saying the warmest of thank yous to Mavis and her cohort for their wonderful efforts in helping to ensure that children in deprived areas are able to stay in education. I know that Mary’s Meals are equally grateful.

We are sometimes asked by other generous people whether we would like them to collect cans for us to recycle. While appreciative of these offers, we really do not have the capacity to handle more cans than we do at present. We would prefer it if people in the Penny Post area were to initiate their own can collecting programmes, especially if you have a pick-up or other capacious vehicle that makes the project more viable. And we would love it if you chose Mary’s Meals as the recipient of your enterprise. But whatever charity you choose, please make it one that spends the money on helping those most in need and not on administrators ensconced in West End offices!

Patrick Hickman-Robertson


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