Rukmini West, BRAG’s 2011 Green Champion (see photo), should be used to awards by now. But with characteristic modesty, she says that the accolade came as a surprise, and that it has inspired her to carry on with her environmental work.
The award stemmed from Ruk’s noticing that Hounslow Council, although promoting reducing waste in its cafeteria, was using polystyrene food containers. Ruk started a campaign that led to the introduction of reusable lunch boxes.
Just three years earlier, in 2008, Ruk had been named Hounslow’s Green Champion. The award is part of the Council’s Green Guardian scheme and recognises the efforts of people who have helped raise environmental awareness and supported green initiatives in the community.
Make do and mend
“I’ve been recycling all my life,” says Ruk. “As a child in rural Suffolk during the Second World War, I was part of the make-do-and-mend generation, and my family didn’t waste anything.” Ruk used to knit hats and gloves, and her mum taught her to crochet and make rugs. Outdoors, she would pick blackberries, gather fruits and nuts, and help on the family allotment.
She received her first environmental award in 1973, a Foot Path Preservation accolade from the Surbiton District, for activities with the local Scouts.
Ruk joined Friends of the Earth in Kent in the 1980s and got involved in recycling. While an employee at Southlands School in New Romney, she set up a recycling system, the first in the school, for newspaper and aluminium cans, which also raised money for the school. She was awarded a certificate for her environmental work.
A visit to India in 1994 further strengthened her environmental resolve and started a long-term relationship with the country. While there she did environmental work in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, helping clear rubbish off a mountainside.
In India, Ruk lived in a mud hut without any of the mod cons that are regarded as necessities. Until recently she had no bed – she slept on the floor; no refrigerator – she bought fresh food daily; and no TV or car. “I don’t see this as a sacrifice,” she says, and attributes her good health to her vegetarianism and simple lifestyle.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Ruk is drawn towards Buddhism, and one of her favourite mottos is ‘Live simply so that others might simply live’. “We live on a beautiful planet,” she says, “and it’s our duty to preserve it.”
Ruk moved to Brentford about 12 years ago and wasted no time in finding an outlet for her green interests. She was a founder member of BRAG, and even came up with its name. She remains a lynchpin of the organisation to this day.
“What I’ve found rewarding with BRAG is working with Hounslow Council’s recycling team and being on stalls at local events, and in particular enjoyed being part of BRAG’s Young Green Voices initiative, visiting schools to spread the recycling message,” she says.
Ruk has channelled her interest in recycling into a host of creative activities, including knitting, crocheting and making mosaics from old bits of crockery and jewellery. She makes squares for blankets that are sent to Romania, part of her work with the charity FARA. She also recycles old wool into blankets that she sells for another charity, the TULSI Trust, which raises funds for a hospital in India.
Another creative-recycling project is crocheting mats and rugs out of plastic bags, something Ruk learned on a visit to India. The fruits of her innovative crocheting efforts were brought to a wider audience when BRAG member and Brentford gardening guru Paul Richens commissioned Ruk to crochet a small square strip of coloured plastic into a mobile for a skip garden he was creating on the King’s Cross redevelopment site. The mobile has been there for three years now and is still flying from a bamboo pole.
But although she finds plastic bags useful for her craft, Ruk says she’d be happier with a plastic-bag-free Brentford.
Champion of the elderly
Ruk’s commitment to her community extends beyond green issues. She’s a long-term volunteer at Age UK in Brentford and works with Hounslow Seniors Trust, a local project for older people. She is involved in the Older People’s Festival, an activity-packed annual event that will celebrate its 19th anniversary this year.
She’s also a member of LOPSG, the London Older People’s Strategy Group, which liaises with Mayor Boris Johnson to discuss issues affecting the elderly. LOPSG is a forum that enables older people from across London to meet and share ideas.
Ruk says that if she could improve anything for older people in terms of transport, it would be ease of getting on and off buses, and maintaining the current status of the Freedom Pass.
It’s about community
Ruk’s choice of activities means she’s generally surrounded by like-minded people, and her network just keeps growing. She said that there are lots of networks around that you don’t see on the surface. But once you tap into one of them, a whole wealth of contacts opens up. One example is Green Drinks, an opportunity to meet up with like-minded people in a local pub every month.
Because you’re on the same page philosophically, Ruk says, it’s easy to integrate in new groups. And age isn’t an issue – it’s your interest, enthusiasm and willingness to contribute that matter.
Ruk’s BRAG Green Champion prize is a reconditioned bicycle, fulfilling a dream she had to forego for 10 years because there was no storage in the block of flats where she lived. “The Council could do more to promote cycling,” she says, “such as providing bike sheds in Council housing.”
Ruk says she’s seen a shift in attitudes towards the environment in the decades she’s been involved in the field and calls herself a “pragmatic optimist”.
With a wealth of experience under her belt and a desire to contribute to her community that knows no bounds, BRAG’s 2011 Green Champion goes from strength to strength.