'They tell us recycling is good for us. Garbage'

Fortnightly collections, zero waste targets, recycling panic – the battle of the bins is raging. Our relationship with rubbish means we won't be told when or how to toss, argues John Walsh
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The relationship between the modern consumer and his or her rubbish is a complex one. It's about a great deal more than consigning your breakfast bacon rinds into a plastic bag or chucking the empty tube of Sensodyne into the basketweave. The dustbin, the wastepaper bin, the refuse sack are vital components of your life. They're filters, kidneys, sorters of unnecessary waste.

When you're fed up with the debris that sprawls across your desk, announcing to one and all what a slovenly, disorganised, anal-retentive slob you are, the bin is your friend: its round, welcoming mouth tells you to lose all this rubbish right now and you'll be a better person, renewed, stripped down, spring-cleaned, fitter for purpose.

When you have a sudden existentialist panic attack and realise how many years have sneaked past you while your life has stayed becalmed and unchanging, your response is to identify the clothes in your wardrobe, the pictures on your wall, the geegaws on your shelves, as the culprit. They've been there too long and they must go. It's not your life that's rubbish, the logic runs; it's these bloody things. You chuck them out and feel renewed, positively young again.

When you visit the local tip, bearing the clapped-out cappuccino machine, the rusted bicycle, the knackered microwave and the broken children's toys to remove them from your life forever, the feeling of relief – of a man freeing himself from lumber and baggage – is palpable and delicious. Bins can turn the disappointing into the positive. In the days when journalists still used typewriters, one of my colleagues attached a small plastic basketball hoop on to his wastepaper bin, so that, when a scrunched-up bit of lousy writing went flying across the room in exasperation, it could be turned into a triumphant slam dunk.

Your rubbish says more about you than you realise. In the late 1990s, a failed lawyer called Benjamin Pell (known as "Benji the Binman") made £100,000 a year by rummaging through the dustbins of law firms in search of incriminating documents that involved celebrity clients; he sold them on to the newspapers, and they subsequently appeared as exhibits in court cases – most notoriously in the "cash-for-questions" trial involving Neil Hamilton and Mohamed al-Fayed. Though he does not accept that he acted unlawfully, he was, it could be argued, an early sighting of the brand of privacy-intrusion that became celebrity phone-hacking. His modus operandi made a number of people paranoid about what they threw away, and did wonders for the sale of shredding devices.

His American counterpart, A J Weberman, an American writer and crazed fan of Bob Dylan, first came to public attention by digging through the singer's garbage in an effort to understand what made him tick. Once, according to Rolling Stone, Dylan caught him in mid-rummage outside his New York apartment, and attacked him there and then. Weberman, though evidently a few episodes short of a box set, coined the word "garbologist", meaning a social anthropologist who analyses garbage to understand changing patterns in human consumption and human society. It's now a sophisticated academic discipline at the University of Arizona, where genuinely interesting work is being done to determine the future of landfills, and the floating island of plastic rubbish in the Pacific Ocean.

Getting rid of our rubbish, responsibly, is a basic human function. But recent history has seen garbage invading our personal lives to an unprecedented degree.

There was a time, in living memory, when refuse collection was a simple matter. Every house in the street had two dustbins that lived outside the front door or down a side alley. Sometime during the week, you extracted the overflowing black bin-liner from the kitchen rubbish bin, chucked into it redundant copies of the Sunday papers, flowing ashtrays and empty wine bottles, and transferred the whole bulging black sack into the receptacles outside the front door. On Saturday morning, the refuse truck would wheeze up the street and robust youths from the council, wearing stylish medieval grey gauntlets, would heave the bins on their shoulders and transfer the detritus of your home into the grinding maw of the refuse lorry.

That was it. Your dustbins, kitchen bin, home and conscience were miraculously cleansed, the disgusting silting-up of your week's domestic debris all vanished away, efficiently expunged from your sight and your soul. It was a bit like attending confession.

O tempora, O mores. Today's household rubbish has changed. It's no longer in a bin, awaiting transfer to a dustbin; it's all over the house, being recycled. Today's kitchen resembles a multi- coloured adventure playground of plastic containers, colour-coded in pink, green, blue and black, which keep everyday rubbish carefully divided up, a whole taxonomy of trash. Here are the wine bottles and glass coffee jars; here's the plastic packaging, plastic bottles and bits of polythene; here are the empty chopped-tomato cans and anchovy tins. And here's the debris of food, the potato peelings and uneaten fruit, the banana skins and fish bones, the egg shells and bacon rinds.

When we first began composting, we put all this stuff in a red washing-up basin near the sink, waiting until it was full before taking it down the garden to the compost heap. We weren't crazy to hear that our cleaner was telling neighbours we were a disgustingly slovenly family, who left smelly food practically lying on the floor. But then the council kindly gave us a different-coloured bin to keep it in.

Today's hallway is a virtually impassable redoubt of newspapers in all their multi-sectional glory, all those extra, unread, supplements about holidays or motorhomes or recycling, piled high for anything up to two weeks, along with the cardboard wine boxes, letters, envelopes, random mailshots and pizza-delivery flyers. You can't drag it all outside because the rain will get into the ill-fitting blue recycling bin and reduce its contents to a sodden, unrecyclable mess, and that would never do. So it stays inside the front door, a lumpy, quasi-organic obstacle to ingress or egress...

It was a 21st-century thing to do. In 2001-02, only 2 per cent of the population recycled their household waste; by 2002-03 the figure had risen to 14.5 per cent. Friends of the Earth pointed out that, despite this, Britain came near the bottom of the scale for responsible recycling, ahead of the grubby Greeks and Portuguese (4 per cent) but miles behind the goody-goodies of the Netherlands (59 per cent). In 2004, Friends of the Earth said: "The government must provide more support and funding for councils to ensure that every household has a comprehensive doorstep recycling scheme. We will not have a recycling record to be proud of until recycling is as easy as throwing out the rubbish."

And lo, it came to pass. Local councils issued guidelines, then instructions, then legally-backed demands that we divide up our rubbish into separate piles and stacks. They sent inspectors to make sure householders hadn't transgressed the rubbish laws. (I was upbraided in 2006 by a burly binman, who pointed out that the cardboard tray which once housed 24 cans of Budweiser, was in the cardboard-rubbish bin, but had a sheet of plastic attached. The British population, though never terribly keen on being told what to do, took to this dirigiste environmentalism surprisingly well. They began to fetishise their bins and praise the density and moistness of their compost hillocks, as if they'd turned, overnight, into Tom and Barbara Good from The Good Life.

My neighbour Annie stuck cute floral transfers on her garden-refuse-only wheelie bin. The most unlikely people chuckled over the necessity of doing your bit for the environment. In the run-up to the London mayoral election in 2008, I interviewed Boris Johnson and asked him, inter alia, if he was personally keen on recycling at home. "Good God yes," he said, "I now hesitate for a long time after I've licked the yoghurt lid, to work out exactly which container to put it in."

And somewhere along the line, it was decided by the Labour Government that, since the recycling was going so swimmingly, councils could stop picking up our rubbish every seven days. Once a fortnight was ample for collecting both domestic rubbish and recyclable material. Half the nation's councils did just that. Eric Pickles the Conservative MP, now the Communities and Local Government Secretary, did his best to oppose the scheme. He told the Tory party conference in 2008 that, if the party were elected into power, weekly refuse collections would return. They were, he said, "vital... to protect the local environment and public health."

In the following months, he warmed to his theme. "It's a basic right for every English man and woman," he thundered, "to be able to put the remnants of their chicken tikka masala in their bin without having to wait a fortnight for it to be collected." He reiterated this view with admirable single-mindedness, through the election and all the way to this spring – but now he's failed. On Tuesday, Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, announced the results of a government review of the measures it planned to take towards a "zero-waste economy".

One of its "measures" was that fortnightly bin collections would stay. As a sop to householders, she announced that the irritating fines levied for breaking the recycling rules would be abolished, but new penalties would be introduced for fly-tippers. Otherwise, they will leave it to local councils to decide on rubbish collection, because "ultimately, councils are accountable to their local electorate". And of course, reinstating weekly collections would have cost the government somewhere in the region of £500m.

So we will continue to have our rubbish taken away fortnightly. We will go on silting up our kitchens, cramming our hallways, remembering to compost our potato peelings, visiting the appropriate banks and dumps. Local councils will supply us with more and more waste-collection receptacles. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, the council has asked householders to sort their refuse into nine bins; the council proudly claims that the borough's recycling rate has increased from 27 to 50 per cent, but local residents have called it "a nightmare knowing where to keep all these containers." Twenty other councils, including Aberdeenshire, Middlesborough, Neath and Warwick, provide seven bins per household to its delighted residents.

It is easy to see the British public growing weary of being expected to work so hard at keeping its conscience green. Of course we understand that the issues of recycling and waste reduction affect us all and should concern us all. The 15m plastic bottles we use every day aren't going to vanish; they'll take 500 years to decompose. Despite our environmental enthusiasm during the 2000s, UK households still produce over 30 million tons of waste, of which only 18 per cent is collected for recycling. We're still almost as bad as Portugal and Greece. We should do more. But the Government is mistaken if it presumes we can be bullied into recycling, composting and dumping, day after day, like environmentally sound hamsters whizzing around on a wheel, if we are to be denied a weekly rubbish collection.

Being told, more and more, to manage your own refuse disposal takes the concept of the Big Society to an unacceptably cheeky extreme. Being told by Friends of the Earth that less frequent collections "help to cut the rubbish created in the first place, as people either re-use more of what they'd previously thrown away, or buy less in the first place" only brings us out in a rash of irritation. How are we to "re-use" the Sunday newspapers we threw away two weeks ago? How are we to buy fewer eggs, or bananas, or toothpaste tubes or J-cloths than our lives require, without becoming malnutritious, malodorous and manky?

We wish the Government every success in pursuing its big dream of a zero-waste economy, and its equally big dream of not being penalised by the EU for falling foul of its recycling laws. But the fact remains that rubbish is for getting rid of, not for keeping close beside you. Virtually every family in the land pays £120 a month in council tax. And we expect more, in return for our money, than seeing a refuse lorry wheeze up our streets only twice a month, and hearing a lot of exhortations from councils to sort out the rubbish ourselves. They tell us it's good for us. But we know it's garbage.