I'm an 11 bag man myself...

and, frankly, that's rubbish. Simon O'Hagan is shocked to discover just how much one man, his wife, two children and a cat can throw out
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The Independent Online

I'm not proud of the fact that in only one week my family managed to accumulate no fewer than 11 bags of rubbish – so many that the wheelie bin was full to overflowing and the rest of them had to be sidestepped on the way to our front door. And the three black bags' and eight swing-bin liners' worth of refuse – all of it produced by just two adults, two children and one cat – didn't include the stuff we put in our recycling box. Disgraceful.

I'm not proud of the fact that in only one week my family managed to accumulate no fewer than 11 bags of rubbish – so many that the wheelie bin was full to overflowing and the rest of them had to be sidestepped on the way to our front door. And the three black bags' and eight swing-bin liners' worth of refuse – all of it produced by just two adults, two children and one cat – didn't include the stuff we put in our recycling box. Disgraceful.

Shame is one thing. It would be quite another to have to pay £10 a week, £500 a year, for the removal of this quantity of stuff. For that is what the more profligate among us were threatened with last week in a proposal to charge for the removal of excess amounts of rubbish. What constitutes excess, you might ask. Well, anything over two black bags per week per household, suggests the Performance and Innovation Unit, which carried out the research for the Government. Every additional bag would cost £1. Yikes! We O'Hagans, along with millions of other people, are going to have to change our ways.

The Government has since distanced itself from the scheme. It won't happen, says Gordon Brown. But it concentrated people's minds, and left the question: how do we reduce the amount of rubbish we create? The obvious answer is to acquire less stuff in the first place. But assuming that people need everything that comes into their homes, how does one minimise the amount that ends up contributing to the problem of Britain's rapidly expanding refuse tips and landfill sites?

Rubbish is one of those areas where we Britons lag hopelessly behind our Continental neighbours. We produce far more – 400kg per person annually compared with, for example, 300kg in France, and it's growing by 3 per cent a year.

We also recycle far less – a pathetic 11 per cent compared with, for example, 52 per cent in Switzerland. The Germans recycle 48 per cent of their rubbish, the Dutch 46 per cent, and the Norwegians 40 per cent. All these countries, and many others, have higher targets still for recycling. And while we might think of America as a shrine to the consumer, we should also recognise that it recycles a commendable 31.5 per cent of what it chucks away.

Somewhat lost amid last week's warning of financial penalties was the parallel recommendation that the policy would only work alongside a much improved recycling collection service. At the moment only half of British households are offered any kind of recycling service – and what's more there's a limit to what can go into a recycling bin. Into ours go glass bottles, newspapers and tins (labels removed), but there's no provision for plastic containers or cardboard which, in theory, are also recyclable. Food packaging remains a blight on the environment, but in a society where the rise of the single-occupancy household means ever more demand for convenience food, that's not a problem that is going to go away. No wonder binmen are due to go on strike.

I phoned our local authority – Brent – to find out what more I could do. It recommended one of their compost bins, on special offer at £5. But demand was outstripping supply, and I would have to wait at least twice the 35-day delivery period that it said on the form.

There is still only a fraction of British households that uses compost bins, and clearly they have no role to play if you don't have a garden. But we do, and a compost bin would account for leftover food and a lot of cardboard. Add that to all the other recyclable materials and I could see how Friends of the Earth estimates that up to 80 per cent of what we throw away could be recycled.

"This figure is based on a higher provision for home collections," Martin Williams, an FoE parliamentary campaigner, told me. "It's no good if people have to drive to recycling centres, thereby cancelling out the environmental benefits." The FoE is running a "doorstep recycling campaign", with the support of 270 MPs. In agreeing that the Government's proposals are a good idea only if there is a recycling service to every home, Greenpeace warns that without one, "it could become a fly-tipper's charter".

In defence of my family's recent rubbish record, I'd like to point out that one bag had a couple of discarded pillows in it, and another comprised an empty cardboard box. And I'm sure I could reduce the number further by packing our rubbish more neatly. But that's not really good enough, is it?

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