John Walsh: Tales of the City

'The bin men refused to take away anything that looked like paper. It was time to get environmentally serious'
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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to last year's New Year resolutions? Most of them went down the dust-pipe in the first few months. My resolution to move on from three chords on the guitar and to master several popular works ending with Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez didn't get beyond the 16th bar of "Stairway to Heaven". The topical sequence of poems that was supposed to incorporate an ode, a villanelle, a sestina and a sonnet in which alternate lines ended with rhymes for "Ahmadinejad" and "Bin Laden" didn't get anywhere. My decision to lose two stone by embracing the little-known Carbohydrates Only diet (with lashings of red wine to stop you missing all that nice protein) was doomed to failure. My commitment to personal health saw a number of posters appear all over the home declaring "I Will Definitely Stop Smoking in 2007", but by August I still hadn't decided in which month it would happen.

The only resolution that worked out was recycling. It took a while to relinquish the idea that rubbish went in a black refuse sack, which, once it was full, was left outside for the dustbin men. Now that even the "Trash" icon on my laptop was replaced by the word "Recycle", and the dustbin men had started refusing to take away anything that rattled or looked like newspaper, I saw it was time to become environmentally serious. So I did what the council recommended. I hung hessian bags from every drawer knob in the kitchen and into them deposited carefully sorted plastic, tin, cardboard and newspaper items. I informed the puzzled and mutinous family that the pink plastic bowl on the floor was for compost and that, henceforth, all banana skins, egg shells, potato peelings and onion debris should be steered therein. I surveyed my work with pride. Why, I could practically feel the fortunes of the planet improving.

There were teething troubles at first. Lumps of abandoned meat gristle began to appear in the Compost Bowl. Old newspapers shockingly turned up in Cardboard Corner, rather than in the wicker Newsprint Basket. Empty jars of peanut butter went into the Ordinary Rubbish bag rather than the Glass Receptacle, because apparently "They're not, like, bottles, are they?"

Then Marjorie the cleaner threatened to resign. "Dis family gat very slovenly lately," she said. "Just t'row food scraps on da floor. Can't be bothered to find da bin no more." I tried to explain to her about recycling and compost but just at that moment the bloke arrived to install the environmentally friendly low-wattage, recessed lightbulbs in the kitchen. "Strewth," he said. "It don't 'alf pen-and-ink in 'ere."

As time went on, and the recycling categories became more finely divided "Cardboard" was now split into "Cereal boxes only" and "Biscuit boxes only" and more hessian bags started to proliferate on more and more doorknobs, the kitchen began to resemble the aftermath of an unruly bring-and-buy sale in Croydon. None of the bags, bowls or sacks ever seemed to fill up, so nothing was ever actually thrown away. All the household detritus of weeks was just inventively re-packaged, as though by a deranged branding consultant.

When it became too much to bear, I seized one of the larger cardboard boxes and took them out to the dustbins. And there I met a dustman. Hurrah! My hero.

"I'm glad I've caught you," I said. "Take this will you?"

He scrutinised it suspiciously. "Can't do that, mate," he said.

"Look, I know I haven't had time to put it in the cardboard recycling bin," I said. "But surely you can just chuck it in for me, can't you?"

"Nah," he said. "Look, it's got a bit of polythene or somefing attached inside it."

"Where?" I asked.

"There," he said. "And we're not collecting plastic stuff today."

"When will you be collecting plastic stuff?" I asked.

"Tuesday," he said.

"Don't tell me," I said, "you won't be collecting cardboard that day, will you?"

He sucked his teeth. "Could be," he said at last.

It went on like that. Sometimes, having your rubbish collected was like going before the hanging committee at the Royal Academy. Everything was inspected and, mostly, found wanting. The bin men refused to take any cardboard box which had a plastic sticker on the side, because it wasn't 100 per cent cardboard. They'd look at your paper rubbish, and solemnly extract a length of glittery wrapping paper because it wasn't strictly paper. Plastic debris could be thrown out in plastic bags, but tin cans weren't allowed in plastic bags because they were still tin, and had to go in the plastic boxes provided (amazing that they didn't insist on tin boxes.)

Meanwhile, the pong in the kitchen worsened, the hessian sacks spawned like wild salmon and spilled into the hallway, where they stood alongside the black refuse sacks of homeless wrapping paper and polythene packaging that nobody wanted. Then I decided it was time to throw out some large bits of debris an old bar-football table, a horrible fold-up bed and rang the council. Would they send someone to come and take them away? Yes, they could do that. Excellent. I manhandled the footie table, the bed and a redundant chest of drawers into the hallway, where they stood beside the dozen black refuse sacks and two dozen hessian bags full of tins and plastic and empty cereal packets, and rang the council again.

"Okay, it's ready," I said. "Can you come and take these three things away today?"

"Didn't we mention?" said the voice. "We only collect a minimum of 15 objects at any one time."

I looked around at my formerly quite attractive abode. I'd kept my resolution. I'd spent a whole year recycling like mad. And the sum total of my efforts was this: I could no longer get from my kitchen to my front door.