living and learning

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

GAW: Rags, riches, and alternative recycling

This post is part of the Geography Awareness Week series.
Topic: Sustainable Urban Areas

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There are no charity shops where I live. There are no vintage shops. In fact in all my 14 years of living there, I have never once heard of any car-boot sales or clothes swaps or Gumtree-esque websites.

It seems that Shenzhen, a city of 8.9 million people, lacks something fundamental - that is, accessible ways of recycling used goods.

Wait a sec - then how come we aren't swimming in old electric fans and mobile phones and issues of Reader's Digest? Where does all the stuff go?

To be fair, I do know of a second-hand market for household appliances situated in one of seedier neighbourhoods (that we are urged to keep out of). And every few years there is a 'help the needy' campaign where our unwanted clothes are shipped off to the rugged, poverty-stricken inland areas of China. Second-hand dealers set out sandwich boards on their street corner pitches. Oh and there's the small used book shop just down the street...and I've pretty much summed up the state of 'official' recycling where I live.

I would say that we don't have that much stuff to start off with. We don't celebrate Christmas, so unwanted gifts aren't a huge concern. Furthermore, 'gifts' usually mean either a) fruit, b) local/speciality produce, c) pot plants, or d) cash (disguised as a red envelope during Chinese New Year). None of these are going to hang around for long are they!

Then there is the waste collection system. Bar the filthy rich and certain foreigners, everyone lives in a flat of some sort. You leave your rubbish/unwanted items in a designated spot in the hallway, and each morning the cleaners haul them downstairs to the back yard for the dustbin lorries to collect. Usually they will sift through the pile and hold on to anything of value - broken appliances might be repaired and dusted off to be taken home; old books and papers are bundled up and sold to the book dealer; plastic bottles are painstakingly washed and crushed to supplement one's meagre income.

One man's rags are another man's riches they say, and nothing holds more true in a city where $1/day exists alongside $1000/day.

But surely you ask, after all the influence from the West, the denizens of Shenzhen have caught on and started bartering used stuff by now? No, it seems that second-hand stuff has never been fashionable and never will be. Back in 2007 I helped set up the Shenzhen chapter of Freecycle, but had to back out after a while due to other commitments - 3 years on, it's all but on its last legs while the 'alternative recycling' scene is still alive and kicking!

It's true that the Chinese like their things new and shiny. Buildings beyond a certain age are pulled down to make way for bigger, better, shinier ones (hence the lack of ancient architecture in China). House plants are thrown out as soon as the Spring Festival is over, whether or not the leaves have started wilting. Seafood has to be alive up to the point of cooking.

I cannot understand this craze for 'untouched goods' - in fact I adore vintage clothes and period homes! My mum says that used items are considered 'dirty', and second-hand belongings imply that either you are stingy or you can't afford new ones, a big no-no when 'prosperity' is at the heart of Chinese culture.

In conclusion: even though it's not that obvious, things are being recycled in Shenzhen, possibly even to a greater extent than in British cities. It just takes a keen eye to spot it out.

Monday, 21 June 2010

GAW: Geography Awareness Week begins today!

In accordance with the Geographical Association's Geography Awareness Week, this week we'll be looking at various topics surrounding the theme of 'The Big Picture: Tackling Global Issues', namely
  • Population Growth
  • UK Food – Self Sufficiency
  • Disaster Management
  • Climate Change
  • UK Energy Dependency – How Bad Is It?
  • Inequalities in Consumption
  • Sustainable Urban Areas
Yeah. Time to get those noggins a-joggin'! Keen to read more? Get your resource pack here.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Magnificent Maps - British Library free exhibition

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

What is 'a geographical point of view'?

When you're supposed to be doing a geography dissy, but have been wading knee-deep in education and information studies literature all along, you're bound reach that dreaded jamais vu stage where you suddenly blurt out,
What the heck is geography anyway?? How does this stuff differ from sociology or education or whatever?
I had such an identity crisis a couple of days ago. I took the question with me to the dissy meeting, and got a very soul-soothing answer from the nickmeister. In short,
Geography is about space and place and relations.
Is it set in a specific location? Yes? It's geography. Is it in context of the wider social and cultural fabric? Yes? It's geography. Is it an isolated, highly specific study of something? Yes? Then it's not geography. Et cetera.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Going to the British Library, Boston Spa

This is a follow-up to the post on 'how to get hold of obscure books'.

Locker key, meal card, and visitor badge. Shiny!

I went to the Boston Spa Reading Room today and got my paws on that long-coveted book:D (This isn't the best time for me to go on any day-long excursion really, but the uni's minibus service only runs once a month and I'd be out of Sheffield by the next timeslot...) For first time readers who might be put off by the sheer effort involved, I can assure you that it's a very enjoyable and unique experience - definitely worth the trouble!

Getting on the bus is easy enough. Assuming you've booked a place and not overslept, and know where the Arts Tower is, there's very little chance of missing it. It'll probably be the only vehicle in sight, and definitely the only one with a clipboard-carrying librarian prowling around it. If in doubt, refer to the bottom right image in this collage:

Bottom right pic taken on 1.6.2010 in Tower Court car park.
Top right pic taken on 6.12.2009 outside BL St Pancras.
Others taken on 1.6.2010 at BL Boston Spa.

With an 8:45 early start, one might expect to arrive at Boston Spa by ten - if you don't get lost, that is. Two factors contributed to our delay: 1. the driver was new to the job, and 2. BL Boston Spa is smack in the middle of nowhere. Shitty maps played their part too. Fortunately our tiny party of 6 were in good spirits and didn't complain once during the extra 40 minutes.

BL Boston Spa is a most curious phenomenon. It is unlike any other library that I've been to. Not far from where it stands is the formidable fortress of HM Prison Wetherby, all high walls decked with barbed wire coils. What's this got to do with the library you say? Well when the minibus approached the library compound I couldn't help notice the stark industrial feel of the place: wire fences, squat sprawling buildings, greyish monochromes, a tiny indiscernible entrance. It could've passed for a prison if it weren't for the abundance of trees.

Once you're there everything is simple enough. You register at the reception desk to get a visitor's badge and a locker key. You can only take notebooks, pencils and a mobile phone into the reading room. Oh and laptops, there's free wireless apparently. You pick up your books from a shelf near the reading room entrance, and voilĂ ! You're all set to start reading!

At lunchtime you can buy a meal card and join the hordes of BL employees at their 'restaurant' (glorified cafeteria) for a nice laid-back lunch. The food is tasty, the variety pretty impressive - they've even got a build-your-own-sandwich counter. The biggest surprise costs peanuts!! :O A hearty main course with 'taters and veg plus hot pudding and custard costs a measly £2.20, while a steaming cup of PG tips is 35p! Beats The Common Room any day IMHO.

An incentive to work at BL Boston Spa...

One caveat about the reading room: photocopying is expensive. 20p per sheet and they don't do double-sided copying. If you reckon you'll need to re-read a lot of the stuff, you're probably better off having the document delivered electronically. The bits I needed photocopying were within copyright guidelines (1 short chapter) so I went ahead and did it. The BL use a low-tech version of our uni printing system: you're simply issued a slip of paper stamped with an account number, and asked to type in a password on the reception desk computer as the librarian knowingly looks the other way. The printers are then operated through touch screens pretty much like our own.

At the end of the day, do remember to return your keys and visitor badge to reception. If there's credit left on your meal card the vending machine will round it down to the nearest 20p and return that with your £2 card deposit. Or you could keep it to use next time, if you ever get the urge to visit again;)
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