We Baby Boomers set the eco-friendly standard before it was trendy

Jul 19, 2023
Our glass milk bottles were collected by your milkman and sent back to the dairy where they were pressure washed and refilled for the next delivery. Source: Getty

The big three “Rs” of today’s society are reduce, reuse, and recycle. But the main emphasis for consumers today is on recycling which, according to the experts is the least efficient tool for resource and energy saving.

Our generation had the right balance decades ago with reduction and reuse outweighing recycling and our energy consumption was far less. Yet some millennials are going gaga with green pride that brown paper shopping bags are making a comeback in our supermarkets. Let’s have a look back at how Baby Boomers did their bit for the planet way before it became trendy.

Glass milk bottles disappeared in the early 80s and were replaced by cardboard cartons or plastic bottles. You put these empty containers in the recycling bin and you’ve done your bit so that they can be reformed into new containers. Our glass milk bottles were collected by your milkman and sent back to the dairy where they were pressure washed and refilled for the next delivery.

Although the odds were very low, there was even the chance you could get the same bottle back. There were some downsides to this process when the cleaning wasn’t up to scratch. I remember two occasions when Dad rang the dairy to complain firstly about a chunk of moss in the bottom of our fresh milk and secondly about a dairy-infused cockroach squished on the inside of the bottle.

When we treated ourselves to a coffee at our local cafe it was almost always served in a ceramic cup. Once the coffee was consumed the cup returned to the kitchen for the dishwasher to get it ready for the next customer.

Yep, I know sometimes you got the extra treat of someone else’s lipstick on your cup, but this was rare, and recycling or landfill abuse with a disposable coffee cup wasn’t an issue. The only paper cup in sight was at those horrible plastic instant cafe machines that were installed in some offices and unfortunately are still found in some car service waiting lounges.

When we bought a bottle of soft drink from a corner store there was a good chance we could take it back to the shop to be reused and receive 5 cents for our trouble. As an alternative to the Coke and Pepsi duopoly, most towns had their own soft drink factory.

In Brisbane, there were Corks and McMahons to name just two. Once a week a truck would drive up your street. You could buy a bottle or two or even a crate of mixed lolly water with flavours such as sarsaparilla or pineapple fizz being our family favourites. The following week you would return your bottles to be refilled at the factory.

Beer bottles were the bread and butter of Boy Scouts as they were collected by them for a commission and returned to the brewery for refilling. Cleaning and refilling beer bottles used less energy than recycling glass. There was even a K-tel bottle cutter that lets you etch and slice beer bottles to create bespoke vases, ashtrays, and drinking glasses. Some crafty types even used the neck of the bottle and super glue to make stems for their amber-coloured wine glasses.

Newspaper recycling wasn’t a big thing because the Boomer generation had many ways to reuse yesterday’s news. Moving house? No bubble wrap is required. Instead, wrap your fragile plates or ornaments in the newspaper.

Laying some new Lino on your floorboards? Prepare the surface with a generous layer of newspaper that will prevent the lines of the timber from showing through your new Lino. There was the added advantage that in years to come future renovators would be thrilled at finding documented history under their floor covering.

Putting in a new garden bed? Who needs a weed mat when liberally spread out newspaper put a stop to those pesky weeds and in time added mulch to your garden? Fish ‘n chips shops reused newspapers every day (until the health inspectors took over). I reckon the hot chips warming the printer’s ink gave your flake and potato scallops (cakes for Southerners) a unique aroma not matched by plain butcher paper.

Of course, not all take-away came wrapped in newspaper, but I remember Dad collecting our weekly Chinese food takeout in our own saucepans rather than disposable plastic containers.

Boomers also reused magazines as school book covers and the many colour pictures they contained for their current school project. Keeping in mind of course that weekly magazines of that era were more likely to have pictures of cars, sugar cane, food, and steam trains.

As kids our outgrown clothes didn’t make the seasonal trip to the tip or ragbag that seems to be more common today. Clothes weren’t cheap and hand-me-downs were the natural way to save money and perhaps unintentionally take part in a bit of planet-saving.

The hand-me-down process wasn’t always within one house and cousins, aunties, and uncles could also be part of the cycle. Even neighbours shared clothes across the fence. I remember the thrill of getting my first pair of sneakers from my older cousin. They were girls’ shoes with none of the visible branding that shoes seem to need today, but I was rapt.

Disposable nappies didn’t foul our rubbish bins and add to our landfill problems. Bubbies’ output was carefully scraped into the toilet bowl and the cloth nappies could be washed again and again until they were threadbare and even passed on to the next offspring in line.

The hand-me-down tradition extended to other areas. When we moved into our first home, our alternative to a trip to the furniture store was a cash-free visit to various in-laws and relatives. Everyone had at least one surplus item of furniture and before long we had a functioning home. With a laminate dining table here and a wringer washer there, it might have looked like an antique shop with its mixture of styles, but the furniture hand-me-downs served their purpose for this newlywed couple.

As well as saving physical resources by reusing items, Baby Boomers weren’t slouches in reduced energy use. We had an efficient system where we’d drive to the shops once a week, get what we needed, and returned home happy that we had what we needed to see us through to the next week.

It seems the current generation isn’t quite so organised or energy conscious because when they realise that they have run out of toothpicks or toilet paper, they jump on the smartphone to get an Uber driver to bring their forgotten item to their door.

Instead of relying on electric clothes dryers, Boomers used solar-powered clothes drying by hanging their clothes out in the sun. We were happy to share a single television as a family instead of having 68″ electricity-guzzling plasma in every room. In fact, some of our houses didn’t have powerpoints in every room to accommodate the vast array of appliances deemed necessary today.

Most of our food processing involved a knife and a spoon or even a hand-operated mincer rather than a food processor that could mince ball bearings if needed.

Mowing the grass could be done with a hand mower and the repetition of this chore meant we didn’t need an electric treadmill or rowing machine for exercise.

We drank water from a tap instead of relying on bottled water that has been transported by truck, rail, ship, and possibly air from a mineral spring outside an ancient monastery on the other side of the world. When we approached a door in an office or shopping centre, we used our hands to open the door. We didn’t need electricity to open the doors like Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise.

So while the excitement about the return of paper shopping bags builds, I wonder how many more of our outdated environmental ideas will make a comeback.

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