‘Do you mind if I just put a bag of garden waste next to yours if you’re having it collected?’ said the friendly lady who lives next door.
I was piling up my regulation green canvas bags for ‘heavy garden waste’ and white bags for ‘light garden waste to be composted’ when she popped the question as she opened the door to her house. A harmless enough request in days gone by. But in the current climate?
Reader, I panicked. I froze to the spot. I had already informed Lambeth council of the amount of waste, almost to the nearest ounce, to be collected. I had counted the bags three times over to make sure I was giving them the right information. I had sifted through the bags meticulously, shredding the skin on my hands, to make sure there were no unauthorised materials inside — no soil, rubble, bits of plant pots, no vegetable peelings or anything else that could be construed as foodstuffs, and no large branches (length not specified so I err on the side of caution and cut anything from a tree into a million tiny pieces).
My neighbour disappeared inside her house as I stood hyperventilating with civic torment in my front garden. After a few minutes she brought out one small, white sack, neatly tied at the top. She smiled innocently and held it out to me. I wanted to be a good neighbour and take it from her. She seems a nice woman. She has a child who scowls at me comically every time I see them and a husband who rides a bike. Nice people. Nice people, I kept repeating to myself as I tried to reach out and take the biodegradable bag. But how could I be sure that it contained only authorised material?
There was a long, awkward pause as I toyed with the idea of subjecting her to an interrogation about grass cuttings, leaves and twigs. Were there any hedge trimmings therein which could be construed as large branches? Did she have any idea how long it had taken me to arrange the collection properly, according to the laws of the land, and now her extra bag had rendered my submission incorrect and subject to official suspicion?
This has happened before. I line up my recycling like a good citizen then some friendly neighbour comes along and asks if they can just add a bit of theirs. Don’t these people know I am trying to live on the right side of an autocratic Labour administration? Don’t they have any idea what could happen if our little street falls foul of the rules? Do they not read the official circulars that come through our doors? Did they not see the last warning from the supreme rule of environmental services who decreed that anyone who leaves their bin at the wrong angle will face severe punishment? And yet they just smile and dump garden-waste bags in the wrong place. I want to scream and tell my neighbour that we are all sleepwalking to annihilation but I keep my mouth shut and take the bag and hide it beneath one of mine in the hope that the supreme environmental rulers will not notice.
It’s not much better in the sleepy Conservative-controlled corner of Warwickshire where my parents live, which proves that green hysteria is no longer political, it is institutional, an excuse for administrations of all persuasions to beat their subjects into submission. Having once been trusted by the governing powers to live quietly in Kenilworth of their own volition, my mother and father are now kept in their place by a range of screaming diktats on how they arrange all aspects of their household refuse.
They have six bins and bags of varying colours, shapes and sizes. Grey, green, red and brown. There is no longer one rubbish collection, but different ones every week, information about which is imparted on a printed circular so that the correct bins can be put out before 7 a.m. on the appointed day. ‘I don’t mind, it’s for the environment,’ says my mum like the good citizen she is as she troops back and forth down the drive.
She does, however, know of many elderly people who are having trouble lugging bins about. Our political masters must have evidence that the new regime is good for them. Bit of exercise. Keep them fit. They probably watch from a CCTV van: ‘There goes Mrs Pomfrey, trying to get her red bin full of tin cans to the outside of her garden gate. Dear, oh dear, she’s slow. Come on, old girl, you know you can do it! Oh, she’s fallen over again. These old people, eh? They just don’t make enough effort to save the planet.’
Melissa Kite is deputy political editor of the Sunday Telegraph.