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The rag and bone people of England: masters of circularity

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By Richard O’Neill

· 3 min read

Circularity, the idea of creating a closed-loop life cycle for products, is a popular buzzword in sustainability and environmental circles. It involves reducing waste, conserving resources, and reusing materials to create a more sustainable future. The concept of circularity has been gaining traction in recent years, with businesses, governments, and individuals alike looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact and promote sustainability.

However, the origins of circularity go back much further than the current trend suggests. The practice of living a circular lifestyle has been around for centuries, even millennia, with nomadic people being the master practitioners of this way of life. These communities can be found all over the world and have been able to survive and thrive in spite of the challenges posed by modernisation and progress. Their skills, knowledge, and experiences are a valuable resource, and we can learn a lot from them about the true meaning of circularity.

One such example of nomadic people who have been practicing circularity for centuries are the rag and bone people of England. These individuals, who once roamed the streets of England collecting scrap materials, have been part of the country’s history for hundreds of years. They travelled from town to town, gathering scrap materials and selling them to be reused or recycled. They were an essential part of the circular economy, keeping resources in use for as long as possible, and reducing waste.

The rag and bone people were not just waste pickers, but also skilled traders and entrepreneurs. They made a living from the materials they collected and were able to support themselves and their families. They were experts in the art of recycling and reusing materials, and their knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. Their circular way of life was not just about survival, but also about thriving and making a positive contribution to society.

Despite their historical significance, the rag and bone people of England are often overlooked in discussions about circularity. They represent a critical aspect of the history of circularity and should not be forgotten. Their experiences and insights into the practical application of circularity can provide valuable lessons for the modern-day circular economy.

In conclusion, the rag and bone people of England are a lesser-known example of circularity, but their contributions to the concept should not be overlooked. Their experiences and skills are a valuable resource, and their knowledge should be incorporated into discussions about circularity.

As someone brought up in a nomadic community who ran rag and bone collections and furniture recycling I know the value of the skills learned and I know that only by including and listening to the voices of these master practitioners of circularity can we truly understand and advance the concept to its full potential.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Cover photo credit: Rag & Bone Man by Peter Trimming on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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About the author

Richard O’Neill is a storyteller, author and circularity consultant from the Nomadic tradition.

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