Such a terrible load of old rubbish

Deborah Orr, Columnist Of The Year
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The Independent Online

Here's an astounding festive statistic. Experts predict that, over the season, each person in Britain will generate 40 kilograms of rubbish. Among our leavings will be 2.25 million tonnes of wrapping-paper and crackers, 2.1 million aluminium cans and 33 million domestic batteries. Most of it - around 83 per cent, for that is how much of Britain's waste is disposed of in landfill sites - will end up buried under the earth, rotting, seeping and putrefying.

Here's an astounding festive statistic. Experts predict that, over the season, each person in Britain will generate 40 kilograms of rubbish. Among our leavings will be 2.25 million tonnes of wrapping-paper and crackers, 2.1 million aluminium cans and 33 million domestic batteries. Most of it - around 83 per cent, for that is how much of Britain's waste is disposed of in landfill sites - will end up buried under the earth, rotting, seeping and putrefying.

We are not a nation in touch with its refuse. In Holland, 12 per cent of the national leavings end up in landfill, while 39 per cent of them are recycled. Switzerland recycles 91 per cent of its glass items and 52 per cent of its general waste. Given our country's infrastructure, Britons, too, can get to grips with their left-overs. On the Isle of Wight, where the local council has worked hard on developing recycling strategies that make it easy for everyone to take part, 41 per cent of waste is recycled. Good for the citizens of the Isle of Wight.

It is hard to believe that, given the access, the rest of Britain would not respond just as positively to recycling programmes. The recycling bins that have been proliferating over the country for decades now are often full to overflowing. Councils that offer separate collections of newsprint or glass, or even used clothes and shoes, generally find that there is enough take-up to make it worth continuing. The various charities that offer to pick up and do up unwanted furniture or white goods find that there are always people willing to donate, if only because the service offers a neat method of disposal.

But still, there is so much waste, so much stuff to bring into the home simply to place in a bin-bag and remove again almost immediately. Somehow, waste has developed a weird status. The problem isn't just the general kind of profligacy that comes with affluence. It's a profligacy that goes further than that, and that gives us extra bits to throw away in order to prove to us that the central item is worth having and, somehow, that we ourselves are worth squandering paper on.

An item, somebody somewhere has decreed, is not worth having unless it comes with add-ons that can be immediately shed. Once, luxurious goods were wrapped in tissue paper. Now, the local off-licence will twist half a dozen layers of tissue round a £3.49 bottle of wine. Chain stores selling mid-range clothing will not be happy to let you leave their premises until your £19.99 T-shirt has been encased in fine wrap, then stuck with an understated sticker, placed in a robust bag with a cardboard bottom and, finally, bafflingly, stuck again with another sticker between the handles.

And cups. How many paper cups do we each get through in a day at work? I have three on my desk now, all with plastic lids lined up beside them. The lids all have little drinking-holes in them, like toddlers' training cups. They're useful only if you're drinking your tea while dashing to a meeting, but they are considered essential nowadays, because the lack of one might suggest that the esteemed customer was a person who did not have many important and dynamic meetings to attend.

Yet bringing your own mug into work and ferrying it up to the canteen feels like an act of unspeakable eccentricity. What might your mug have written on it? "I'm an uncool, neurotic old crank"? "Look at me; I'm so self-righteous"? Or: "Don't talk to me; I'm too weird"?

As for bringing a packed lunch to work, instead of swinging into the office with a purchased sandwich in a little box, in a little carrier bag, with some little napkins placed inside it... Well, bringing out a Tupperware box in the office lies somewhere akin to declaring that, yes, you have nothing at all to do in your real life, except make preparations for getting back to the grind.

But alongside the unwillingness to ask the assistant at Jigsaw just to give you your garment unswaddled runs the guilt. The bins full of unwanted and unsolicited circulars nag; the leaflet that come with the credit card statement, along with the addressed envelope that will not be used, taunts; the pile of rubbish generated just by unbagging the fruit and vegetables mocks; and the piles of old phone books that sit on a shelf, out of date but somehow too chunky to chuck, sneer. All of them remind us of our endless wastefulness, the way in which, just by existing and doing the most basic of things, we attract and generate rubbish, and more rubbish.

The Government has now announced a £25m campaign to raise our awareness of recycling. But my awareness is high. It's just so difficult to do anything decisive about it. And anyway, there is still the idea that none of this is being taken seriously. My local council, Lambeth, does offer a service that takes away newspapers, glass, tin and clothing. But it relies on volunteers to sort the materials and keep the system going. Recycling is not yet paying in Britain, which is why an infrastructure is so slow in emerging. This is almost funny really, because even 30 years ago the rag-and-bone man still made a living from going round the doors and exchanging waste items brought by children for balloons and whistles.

One pressure group, the Cockburn Association, suggests that the return of Steptoe and Son is exactly what we need to combat our waste problems today. And, after a fashion, that is happening. The Emmaus movement, founded after the war, has 400 "communities" around Europe at the moment, offering the homeless shelter and a job collecting and recycling old furniture and white goods, in order to support the small groups of around 20 people that form the communities. One has just opened in Glasgow, to immediate success.

Meanwhile, the items we simply throw away are getting bigger and bigger. The latest problem is old cars, with instances of them being simply abandoned tripling in some areas, and the cost of disposing of them falling to the local council. The reason is falling second-hand prices. Again, in Germany and Holland, there is a gratifyingly firm-but-fair answer to that difficulty. Motorists continue to pay car tax until they can prove that their car has been suitably disposed of.

We may go the same way in Britain, as a European directive insists that by January 2007, car makers must be held responsible for recycling the 1.5 million cars scrapped each year. Manufacturers say the bill could be as much as £300m and are therefore eager to find a compromise.

The computer industry is facing similar pressures. While more than 100 million new computers are purchased each year, millions are discarded. Many are already reconditioned, but many more are not. Dumped PCs can leak potentially lethal toxins, so simply dumping the obsolete computer is not a solution. Again, the manufacturers are kicking up a fuss and bleating about their margins. They point to the service provider, in this case the retailer, as being the outlet that should be responsible.

Whatever happens, somebody will have to take responsibility for dealing with the left-overs of the products they make their profits from. Perhaps they ought to think about cutting down on packaging to save a little money at the front end of the business instead. A lot of pressure would be taken off the consumer if penalties existed for introducing needless flotsam into the waste-disposal process in the first place, rather than counting up every Christmas how little we keep and how much we throw away.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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