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Melissa Kite: My journey to despair with Lambeth's bin men

The message of the leaflet is that, like sex, recycling is very much an activity anyone can do

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

Everything is a journey now, especially if it involves failure. The X Factor rejects, people having disasters as they build their own homes on Grand Designs, they’re all on a journey. ‘It’s been an incredible journey,’ they say, watery-eyed as they reflect on what is, in truth, a shameful mess of their own making.

Very much in this vein, a new communication from Lambeth Council has come through my door explaining ‘the recycling journey’. Bear with me, because I want you to come on this journey in order to fully grasp the beautiful symmetry of what Lambeth has achieved.

Imagine a flow chart made up of eight photographs. The first is of a smiling, relaxed-looking householder in cargo pants and flowery blouse putting a large bag of recyclables on to the pavement outside her house. I’m assuming the message this is meant to send is that, like sex, recycling is very much an activity that anyone can take part in. Birds do it, bees do it, even ladies in trousers cut off at the kneeeees do it!

The caption says: ‘You put your recycling out in your orange or clear sack.’ And there is an arrow pointing from that picture to the next one, which is of a bin man in a fluorescent vest and rubber gloves bending down to cheerfully pick up the bag, with the caption ‘We pick it up on your collection day…’

That never happens. It is a well-known fact that modern bin men do not bend cheerfully. The bin men who take my refuse usually kick the bags into the middle of the street where they fester in a huge pile for a few hours, then when a dust cart comes round, one bin man, probably the work experience lad, picks the highest ones up and flings them in the cart. The ones at the bottom he kicks through the air into the jaws of the vehicle. I don’t mind that this is the technique. As long as they take them away somehow, I’m happy. I’m just saying, if we are going to be accurate about this, bin men don’t bend cheerfully.


Right, then there’s an arrow to a picture of a lorry with the words ‘…and drive it to the Materials Recovery Facility’. Which use of capital letters, presumably, is meant to prompt us to think ‘oo, how posh!’

Another arrow points to a picture of a conveyor belt: ‘Your recyclables are fed into the machine and taken along the conveyor belts.’ Arrow to a picture of more stuff in a heap and a man in safety wear looking inquisitively at it: ‘Your recycling is checked to remove any accidental contamination…’ That’s nice, you see, they’re not blaming us for getting it wrong. They’re prepared to call it ‘accidental’.

Arrow to a picture of something that looks like an escalator for rubbish: ‘…but most of the sorting is carried out by machines’. On balance, I think I would like the process to provide jobs for young offenders but you can’t have everything.

Arrow to some funky-looking square blocks made out of compacted rubbish, which look like Turner Prize-winning artwork: ‘The material is then baled and sent on to recycling companies.’ Arrow to a picture of newly made bottles and cans for recognisable brands with the words: ‘Your recycling is turned into products by different companies.’ And this is where my brain goes: ‘Oh. Is it indeed?’

But that’s the end of the journey. It is like one of those films where the closing credits pop up abruptly at the most exciting bit. Which is, who gets the money? I search the leaflet but the answer is not there. There is a foreword by Councillor Imogen Walker, Cabinet member for Environment and Sustainability, saying she wants to help me make the most of the Council’s waste service. But I’m not sure she means this. I think she means she wants the Council to make the most of my waste service.

I ring Lambeth and a cheerful yoof answers: ‘So, you, like, wanna know what’s happ’nin’ to all the, like, recyclin’?’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘I want to know what’s happening to all the, like, money.’

‘Oh,’ he says, ‘well, I’ll get someone who knows about that to call you.’

A very nice person called Catherine then calls and says they use the money from selling my recyclables to reduce the costs of disposing of the rest of my rubbish. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but the cost of disposing of my rubbish is already covered by my council tax, so if you’re making savings from selling the materials I rinse and put in a bag for you, shouldn’t those savings be shared with me?’

‘I’m not the best person to speak to about this,’ she says.

I have a feeling I’m on a journey.


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