A few days ago a very exciting email landed in my inbox. It was from a woman who had once been a member of the Basildon WEN local group, enquiring as to whether we would be interested in having their old scrapbook. The group was very active in the 1990s, but has since shut down. We are currently undergoing a huge archiving project at WEN, and attempting to write a history of the organisation (watch this space!), so I was more than happy to accept!
The scrapbook tells the tale of a local group that no one currently working at WEN can even remember, so rooting through their old campaigns, many of which took place before I was even born, was thrilling and inspiring. Basildon WEN was formed in 1989, one year after the national Women’s Environmental Network was founded, with the aim of ‘empowering women to make valuable changes in [their] lives.’ They campaigned on three main areas: unbleached paper, minimising packaging and against toxic waste, always with a focus on human health and the environment.
The scrapbook contains a number of newspaper cuttings reporting on their actions, as well as leaflets and flyers, including one for their first public meeting on the 15th of November, 1989!
The group campaigned extensively on reducing packaging as a means through which to reduce waste. The women disrupted a ‘Green shopping day’ in September 1989 by returning all the packaging from their conventional shopping to their local shops with a letter explaining the environmental concerns of overpackaging. Campaigns such a ‘Wrapping is a Rip Off,’ which was run in conjunction with the national WEN group, highlighted the problems of too much packaging.
The Basildon women also launched a ‘Scrapstore’ in 1990 with a Green Art Exhibition, which showcased sculptures, masks and collages made of what would traditionally be thought of as waste. The exhibition served as a launch pad for the long term scrapstore, which aimed to collect commercial and industrial waste and distribute it for use by schools and playgroups.
The largest campaign, and more pertinent to the local Basildon area, was against the dumping of toxic waste in Pitsea tip. Although a local concern, this campaign reflects the global issue of waste disposal. According to a flyer created by the group, during the summer of 1991, a gallon of ‘abnormal sludge’ leaked into Pitsea creek every minute. Pitsea tip, which still exists, is the second largest landfill site in the UK, receiving 800,000 tons of waste per year. Not only was this unpleasant for the residents, due to the unpleasant smell and large convoy of itinerant lorries invading their town. This one local example highlights the problems with the way waste is dealt with globally. The amount of waste produced each year is staggering, and a huge percentage of that (30%, according to the Toxics Action Centre), is packaging (seems the Basildon WEN ladies were on to something with that too!) Of the packaging that is discarded, 40% of it is plastic, which never biodegrades. Instead, it is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces until eventually it becomes plastic dust, which causes chaos in ecosystems. Plastic isn’t the only problem. The concoction of often untested chemicals in our everyday products are released back into the environment when we carelessly chuck them in a landfill. That abnormal Essex sludge isn’t just gross, it’s potentially really toxic.
As well as the scrapbook, we were also bequeathed a beautiful, hand sewn Basildon WEN banner, as well as some green WEN sashes, that made us feel a bit like suffragettes. We put them on and immediately wanted to take to the streets, protesting for votes for women. (We may have been born into the wrong era…) Reading about the work that a group of likeminded women did over twenty years ago, and the changes they were able to effect, is really inspiring, and shows how powerful women can be when they band together for a significant cause.
Basildon WEN scrapbook, c. 1993