Not just any old rubbish

It's amazing what you can find at Britain's poshest dump: diamonds, designer clothes, TVs... speedboats. Who on earth chucks this stuff? Adam Lee Potter investigates
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The Independent Online

There are two widescreen televisions on a shelf, eight fridge-freezers, a strimmer and a vacuum cleaner. A set of Kirkintilloch golf clubs, three mountain-bikes and a tank engine. "Everything for Everybody Everywhere" is the motto here.

There are two widescreen televisions on a shelf, eight fridge-freezers, a strimmer and a vacuum cleaner. A set of Kirkintilloch golf clubs, three mountain-bikes and a tank engine. "Everything for Everybody Everywhere" is the motto here.

The manager is dressed in Calvin Klein and DKNY, a gold chain around his neck, a sparkler on his finger. Arms folded, he looks every inch the patriarch as he stands and meets his customers from their Volvos and BMWs. Only his black fingernails, vague whiff of carbolic and Grim Reaper tattoos give any hint that he is no ordinary retailer.

For this is not a department store. Nor even some groomed car-boot sale. This is Britain's poshest rubbish dump. So posh, in fact, that the binmen have set up their own shop. A queue stretches round the block. The car-park is full. Ordinary rubbish, it ain't.

A W-reg Ford Fiesta, a speedboat and a Second World War bomb. Gemstones, Marks & Spencer suits, computers. There is very little, it seems, that doesn't get dumped. Or sold. With a profit of close on £1,000 a month, the selling area at Westminster Road Household Recycling Centre in Wareham, Dorset, is a commercial triumph.

The proprietor is a millionaire, with a holiday home in Cyprus and a top-of-the-line Range Rover. Manager Steve Webber has worked here for five years. Before that he was a pig farmer, a shampoo-factory worker and a marquee erector. He takes home just £220 a week but insists: "This is my best job so far, no question."

Overwhelmed by the quality of the garbage, he has just bought a diamond tester for £150. "It never ceases to amaze me now what people chuck," he says. "I've found eight diamond rings that had been thrown away. So I got a tester and it was well worth it. Four turned out to be real. I gave them to my wife Sandra. What else could I do? It's finders keepers on a rubbish tip. And if people don't want these things, I do.

"It's fair enough. We get first choice. The rest, we sell. But we keep the prices low, a couple of quid, and it goes straight back into site management. It's more about landfill prevention. Anything we can sell or take home, the council doesn't have to bury."

And he does have a point. Dorset is Britain's greenest county, recycling and composting 27 per cent of its rubbish, 14 points higher than the national average. But they do throw out a lot - more than half a ton per head each year. And 140,000 tons of it still goes to landfill. As Andy Nelmes, from the Community Recycling Network, admits: "In Europe, only Portugal and Greece are worse [than Britain]."

And so Dorset County Council, which leases out the Wareham site to Weymouth and Sherborne Recycling, believes this initiative is an environmental boon. Gary Simpson, from waste management, says: "This company is very entrepreneurial. And we encourage that. Anything that keeps landfill down has to be a good thing."

There have been sporadic complaints. "One chap came in saying the selling area was an eyesore," says Steve. "But this is a tip. Another claimed we should be paying extra tax. But it's all above board. The boss isn't stupid." Evidently not. Company administrator Ian Squires admits: "Yes, there is money to be made in this business." As to the shop and his employees' perks, he says: "What's dumped is dumped. As long as there are no health and safety issues, I don't see a problem."

Nor, surprisingly, does the local charity shop, the more traditional venue for posh people's discards. Anita Maguiness, deputy manager of Sue Ryder Care, says: "I suppose we could be losing out. But we're not big enough to stock furniture and children's toys. And we are very choosy about what we sell."

But should we really be cheered by this Upstairs Downstairs example? The poor living off not just the rich man's scraps but his dustbins too. Steve, who has apparently learned more about human nature than any barman, is remarkably sanguine. "It's a low-status job, working with rubbish. But it's like being rich. After a while, you only go for brand names. If it's not designer, I won't take it home. It's got to have a label. Calvin Klein is a particular favourite."

He wears a British army watch and what looks like a diamond ring - "It's fake, actually. I only found out when I bought the tester, but the wife's are real." The gold chain is nine carat. So too the miniature gold football hanging from it. In his wardrobe at home there are two pristine Marks & Spencer suits. All, naturally, come from the tip.

His house is a shrine to rubbish. Because of health-and-safety legislation, Steve is not allowed to sell electrical goods. But those that work are taken home. "I've furnished my entire home from other people's rubbish. Apart from the carpets and beds, I haven't had to buy a thing. Ornaments, garden furniture, plants, tables, chairs. I found a three-piece suite last week, and that went home the same day. I looked in the catalogue and it would have cost me £240. Our toaster, the sandwich maker, a big fridge-freezer. I found our tumble-drier dumped, still in its box. And we've got a lovely 32-inch Sanyo telly."

Every day of the year, bar Christmas, Steve sorts through the skips - from household waste to cardboard - looking for the unusual, the valuable and the dangerous. "The strangest thing we found was a World War II bomb, which hadn't exploded. We had to call in the disposal squad. The other week, we had a speedboat. I don't sail so we sold that for £100. One chap brought in a W-reg Ford Fiesta on Boxing Day. He said: 'I've just bought the wife a new one, and we don't want this.' It was taxed and had an MoT. So one of the lads took it home. That was four years ago. It's still running."

The site office is a treasure trove. A Packard Bell PC, complete with Windows '98, a Bush television and video, kettle, Sharp tele-fax. In a tin in the corner there is perhaps £100 worth of krona, lei, roubles, Turkish lira. Out the back, by the loo block, are 10 bin-liners stuffed with children's clothes. Steve has a delve and immediately pulls out a brand new Kappa sweatsuit - "I'll have that for Jamie, my four-year-old" - but a designer tartan shirt still with its label on gets thrown back, earmarked for the shop. "I don't like check."

Steve's family must be extraordinarily grateful to the burghers of Wareham. His eldest son Marlon, 14, wears a Tag Heuer watch and rides a £500 Daewoo mountain-bike. Sandra, 32, is very much the Elizabeth Taylor of Ferndown. Does she mind wearing other people's cast-offs, even if they are diamonds? He laughs. "She was a bit sniffy at first. But she came round amazingly quickly."

But can people really mean to throw away diamond rings and perfectly decent fridges, computers and televisions? "I've got my own theory about the fridges," says Steve. "Every summer, it gets hot, and people forget to turn their fridge up, so they think it's broken, throw it away, and buy a new one. They're daft. As for diamonds, I don't know. But what else can we do? What could the police do?"

He pulls open a drawer. There is yet another Tag Heuer inside. "I found this the other day in household waste. It might be fake but I don't think so. Nobody's come for it yet."

So who are these louche regulars who throw out last year's labels and swish jewellery? One family pulls up in an enormous Volvo, the roof-rack groaning with goodies. Steve says nonchalantly, "That's the third barbecue they've brought in this morning. We get all sorts. I tend to know the buyers better than the dumpers. There's a good reputation about the Wareham dump. People know you can get a cracking bargain here. One couple comes down from Windsor three times a year. They're obviously very well off, but they always go away with their boot bulging. Stuff for the garden. Furniture, plants."

The dump attracts 1,000 people a week, 800 at weekends alone. Shirley is a 22-year-old single mother who lives on the nearby estate. She comes every morning. Today she leaves with a £2 Cosatto pushchair. It has been barely used. "I buy a little something most days," she says. "Stuff for the baby mostly. It's become almost a habit."

A middle-aged man with shifty eyes and a gardener's complexion sidles up, his hands black from ferreting in the skips. "I come every day, twice," he tells me proudly. "I like to think of myself as a sub-contractor. I've got my own little car-boot business." He winks.

How much does he make? "A hundred quid a week clear profit, or more. Last week I bought a vase for £2. I sold it on for £300." He scurries off again, clutching a £1.50 length of piping and something else unidentifiable which he tucks hurriedly up his jumper.

This is perhaps merely the rural equivalent of eBay. If Cherie Blair lived in the countryside, she would be snapping up bargain heels here instead of online. I saw an Italian pair of purple platforms that she would love, going for a song at 50p.

But the sheer wantonness of our throwaway society is depressing. Wareham is affluent but hardly Mayfair. Even Steve, for all his nous, is not averse: "I don't wash my work jeans anymore. I just throw them away and pick out a new pair from the trash."

Environmental activist David Hieatt - who founded the green fashion label Howies - believes we urgently need to rethink. "Chucking away a speedboat or diamond rings is obscene. Fashion equals consumption beyond necessity. And the rich man, poor man aspect of it is faintly chilling. But if these products are getting a new life which keeps them out of the ground, I guess it's for the best."

Mike and Brenda Bullock, both 62, have recently moved to Dorset from St Albans, Herts. They have been coming every Friday and Saturday for four months. "We tried the dump in Poole," says Brenda, "but it's not a patch on this. Clean, central, well laid-out." She makes it sound like Marks & Spencer.

Her husband, an engineer, adds: "Moving house generates a lot of rubbish. We've thrown out a brick wall, a hedge. Nothing posh, I don't think." Would he consider buying somebody else's rubbish?

He pales. "Ooh no, we wouldn't want to do that. The only thing I want at the moment is a boat." I tell him about the £100 speedboat. Five minutes later I see him wander over to the selling area, looking rather sheepish. Sadly, there are no boats on sale today. Maybe tomorrow.