I was back at the tip on Sunday. I cannot help it. What art galleries or rock concerts or online porn are to some, Derby-shire County Council’s dump at Rowsley is to me. I can’t keep away. Any excuse will do, and on Sunday it was a bit of cardboard and a broken fan heater. Yes, yes, I know, they could have been saved up until there was enough rubbish to fill the bed of my old pickup truck, but … well, the stuff was already in the back and I was driving down the A6 anyway and the pull as I came within the magnetic field of this state-of-the-art recycling centre was just too much to resist. An invisible hand nudged mine into an indicate–left tweak on the lever, and we peeled off down the service road, my rubbish and I.
The place was packed with addicts. The boot of the smart BMW in front of me opened to reveal nothing but four old flower pots, and the chap emerging from the driver’s seat caught my gaze and looked guiltily away. We tipoholics recognise each other. The staff greet some of us by name.
My brain was buzzing with questions and doubts. Should I cut the plug off from the cable in case it was useful to someone? Ought I really to have removed the 13-amp fuse from the plug, for future use? Should I alert the always helpful staff to the fact that the heater was broken, lest some poor punter take it away to heat his home?
Did it matter that there were some leaflets jammed into the flattened cardboard box and that these technically should have gone into the container marked ‘Paper’ rather than up the ramp signposted ‘Cardboard’? Did it matter (this was more serious) that one brochure was inside a padded envelope with plastic in its lining? I lingered there longer than I should have, turning all these enquiries over in my mind and wondering whether it would look silly to ask; finally I tore myself away and drove off. I’d had my fix for the weekend. I’ll be back sooner than I swore to myself, though: such is the fixation.
We’re very keen as a nation on ‘harnessing energy’. Be it wind or woodchip or combined heat and power; be it the energies of charitable volunteers or the passion for collecting buried artefacts; be it the numbers and varieties of birds at our bird-feeders or butterflies on our flowerbeds … all these energies, human, intellectual or kinetic, are capable of being channelled in ways useful to mankind as well as absorbing to individuals. But there’s one big human energy whose potential we’re wasting, throwing to the winds. People are fascinated by rubbish.
Look at the recent surge of interest in plastic bags (in fact a relatively minor if unsightly contributor to environmental pollution that only Michael Gove has had the wit to spot and harness). There’s a huge potential out there among the public, a curiosity, a nascent environmental consciousness, a willingness to engage and do more: and nobody — not our town halls, not our political class, not our media — seems to have recognised to what good effect we could turn what is probably our rather murky Freudian obsession with waste products.
Toss into any friendly human exchange — in pub, dining room or at kitchen table — some of our era’s great unanswered questions about rubbish recycling, and watch the conversation light up.
Why in Derbyshire do we separate paper and cardboard from glass and metal and from plastic containers, while in Tower Hamlets in London where I have my flat, all recyclables go into the same bag?
What is the status of plastic bags and wrappings? Why doesn’t Derbyshire council want me to put them with plastic bottles? Where do we stand on cardboard tubes with tin bottoms? And did you know that some recycling cycles start with a ‘2D or
3D?’ separation — which is foxed by cardboard boxes you’ve failed to flatten?
Does waxed cardboard count as cardboard? Are glossy magazines pulpable with other paper? May we leave them in their plastic wrappers?
Does it matter that some containers or bottles have residues of food or sauce left within them? Or can these be burned off? Likewise old tins of paint? Should we try to wash them — in which case, how do we introduce into the green equation the energy used on hot water and the detergent sent down the drains?
In fact a whole pamphlet is needed on the subject of waste plastic, and I bet that if your local authority issued such advice it would be eagerly devoured by many householders. Can (a) plastic bottles; (b) cellophane; (c) discarded dolls; (d) Tupperware; (e) plastic tubs from your local Indian takeaway; (f) hard plastic bottle-tops; and (g) discarded items that may be a composite of some or all of these, be lumped together as ‘plastic’? I’d honestly stay up late to read about this, and the reasoning behind the advice.
My brother was recently dismayed to watch the early stages of a recycling process and see all the recyclables, which had been carefully separated by householders into glass, metal, plastic, etc, tipped initially into one big container. He says they then use giant magnets, fierce wind machines and other clever detect-and-separate devices (and not, hopefully, Vietnamese children) further to subdivide types of recyclable. Are we then wasting our time trying to distinguish garbage from garbage?
This column has attempted a reasonably light treatment of the subject; but I’m serious. If we had good data on the amount of time the average householder spends per annum pondering these choices, and how much interest they and the logic behind them generate in ordinary conversation, then we’d see that in making rules to influence human behaviour, the state can run with rather than against the grain. Who at Westminster would relish the title Minister for Rubbish? But whoever took the job would fast find themselves mining a great seam of public curiosity and goodwill. Gove is on to something.