Boxed in by rubbish

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The Independent Online
EVERY Friday my three-year-old appears by my bed at the crack of dawn. 'Get up,' she commands. 'Time to smash bottles.'

There are unexpected treats in trying to run an environmentally responsible household. One is the virtuous feeling that comes from throwing bottles into the bottle bank - an act of vandalism in any other context. It is a pleasure not restricted to three-year-olds.

Several months ago I decided the family's attitude to rubbish had to change. The crunch came as I pondered how many more dustbins to buy. We were already a three-dustbin family. I could have doubled the number, and still they would be overflowing within a week.

Sometimes I wonder how my everyday life slid into such a pattern of wasteful consumption. I spent my twenties trying to be a good friend of the earth, but I suppose the sheer pressure of family and job turned me into an ever-more careless consumer, without my really noticing it. I have to pinch myself to remember that I used to take brown paper bags back to the wholefood shop to be reused.

But demanding change was not easy. For a start, my attempts to sort rubbish into separate piles just didn't suit a modern fitted kitchen, where everything has a place and there is one solitary swing bin. I lined up boxes for bottles and glass jars, another for paper and packaging, and a carrier bag for bottle tops and silver foil.

My older children, so keen to save the rain forests, were completely uninterested in something so prosaic as recycling a bottle. My husband staged a revolt against the unsavoury clutter, so I moved the collections outside. Someone should design a new sort of domestic rubbish bin, with several compartments and different flaps.

The next problem was that the dustmen refused to take bags of paper, even though waste paper had been perfectly acceptable to them when mixed up with everything else. It is odd that rubbish collection remains so primitive. It must be one of the few functions still left to local authorities, so why not modernise, become world leaders in the art? (And why do they send the street cleaners in my neighbourhood the day before they do the weekly rubbish collections, which are so sloppily handled that they immediately make the streets dirty again?)

The great dustcarts munch up everything in an indiscriminate fashion. If only my council, instead of declaring the area a nuclear-free zone, had applied itself a decade ago to practical green measures. This lack of a door-to-door waste paper collection service seems daft: there was one, for a brief moment in the Sixties, in my home town.

Undeterred, I post my waste paper into a special skip next to the bottle banks. But it is heavy work, nowhere as much fun as smashing bottles, and not everyone has a car or the time: why do we make recycling such a chore?

And while I have a soft spot for bottle banks, you do end up smashing the glass, rather than recycling the bottle. In the Seventies people did return soft-drink and other empties to off-licences: children used to volunteer for the chore, in order to make some pocket money from the odd pence per bottle. Now only the milkman recycles.

There is also an urgent need for a specialist collection service for disposable nappies - now the alarm is being raised about the danger they create of methane gas explosions at rubbish pits. The daily business of throwing used nappies away in dustbins has long appalled me. After all, disposable nappies have been a mass-market purchase for 12 years. Women are never going to start washing terries again, it would be like returning to the Dark Ages. Why can't families with young children have specially marked dustbins for collection?

It is no good expecting young mothers to take a week's cast- offs to some special dump: families with babies are pushed for time and often quite immobile.

Sadly, my recycling efforts have not been totally successful: no one wants the silver foil/milk bottle tops. I carry on dutifully collecting, assuming that some charity somewhere - through the children's school, or Blue Peter - will one day take them off my hands. It seems that they are out of fashion, too.

And I face a further challenge. We came home last weekend to find only two dustbins outside our house. Believe it or not, and I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, someone had taken one. So I'm wondering whether we can intensify the recycling measures, removing cans, or plastic containers, from the rubbish, in order to cope with being a two-dustbin household? I am not sure my family could stand it.