Yesterday I mentioned a certain event that's been a major highlight of The Rubbish Diet blog. It was an experience that happened exactly one year ago today and convinced me there was just no going back as far managing our own household waste was concerned. I briefly mentioned it on the blog last year in this post (accompanied by several photos) but here is the full account, which forms an extract from the book that I am hoping to publish.
Crying over landfill
I’d been going about my very ordinary day with my new found enthusiam, preparing the kids’ tea with one hand and washing up yoghurt pots with the other, when I received an urgent request to be interviewed for national TV. I may be calm now, but at the time it involved a frenzied attack on clearing up the garden because that was where they wanted to film me. When I think back now, I’m sure I even polished my wheelie bins for the task in hand.
The call had come from the council announcing that the BBC wanted to film a local resident who was good at recycling. Following the success of the Zero Waste Week a few weeks earlier, they thought I’d be perfect, as they wanted to do a story about the effects of a huge hike in landfill tax, an extra £8 levy* on each tonne of rubbish that is dumped in landfill.
If you can’t picture what a tonne is, just think of the weight of a mini, which means that’s £8 per mini sent to landfill. Apparently there would be a similar hike the following year too.
However, it wasn’t enough for the BBC to poke about my bins at home. Once I’d spoken to them in my garden, the producer also wanted to do a live interview, “on location”, the very next day. In short, they wanted to send me to landfill on April Fools Day.
Now there’s a potential April Fools hoax if I ever I’d heard one. As I drove to the site the following day, I almost expected my friends to be at the welcome gate ready to jump out shouting “Gotcha”.
But there was no spoof welcome committee, just the landfill site itself, sitting there in all its glory with its plastic bag fence and gulls soaring overhead.
The site manager kitted me out with a fluorescent vest and a safety hat and I swapped my wedge-heeled boots for my beautiful Wellingtons. I felt like Bridget Jones, about to embark on a mad media adventure, set to brighten the dearth of greyness with a flash of pink footwear.
As we trudged along to the “film-set”, it was hard to ignore the rubbish that was buried below the surface, physical remnants of society poking up through the thin layer of soil. Amongst the old shoes, cracked plates and socks were sheets of paper, cardboard and plastic bottles. Then there were plastic bags, a naked doll and broken toys. There was also a fair share of gone-off food. You name it and it was in there, accompanied by a nasty putrid stench that filled the air.
I watched a bin lorry regurgitate freshly collected trash onto the ground. Bin bags dropped down from a great height creating a carpet of garbage below. A bulldozer came to flatten it and as the mechanical beast reversed, the rubbish bags rose back up with all their might. It was as if the landfill was alive, and taking in a huge breath of air. It was sickening. The sight of the trainers and slippers poking up here and there gave the impression that they could still be attached to people who lay beneath. It felt like a burial ground for life’s ills.
Suddenly the thought of being interviewed live on landfill had lost its appeal. Merrily, sorting out the rubbish at home was one thing. Ending up in the harsh reality of a rubbish dump was another.
What I was witnessing felt like a sad portrait of society, representing affluence, boredom, excess, thoughtlessness and lack of respect. It really felt like we just didn’t care about what we threw away and what happened to it.
How could it be like this?
As the reporter pointed the microphone in my direction, it became clear I was live on air. He asked me to describe the scene and as I started to speak, I felt a tear in my eye. I was overwhelmed by the state of the landscape and the sheer amount of stuff that was being wasted. The TV camera was waiting to broadcast my response.
Oh dear, getting emotional was not the right thing to do. Not at that moment.
Can you imagine? The reporter would shake in his shoes, the director would have to shout “Cut” and the newsreader would end up apologising to the nation.
Instead, I held my head high and told the reporter what I thought.
I acknowledged that the level of waste I’d witnessed was disgusting. It was a strong word, but that's how it made me feel. It wasn't judgemental, more so a sentiment that reflected my own lack of consideration and personal responsibility towards the environment.
I also acknowledged the rise in landfill tax and the impact on council tax, accepting that as a taxpayer I would see increased fees to cover the extra landfill tax. He wanted to know if I would be happy to pay extra to cover the cost of other people’s rubbish to be dumped in landfill while I trod lightly with my own.
Surprisingly I said “Yes”.
It was becoming clear to me that something had to be done to reduce the amount of waste that was being dumped in these burial grounds. I didn’t care about being compensated for having so little rubbish as long as my contribution to council tax could be invested in national solutions to make recycling as efficient as possible.
After all, it is expected that the UK will run out of landfill space in the next ten years. And what then? We can’t just dig another hole in the ground because research has already demonstrated that landfill as a solution is harmful to the environment. Residues from plastic waste impact on the soil and groundwater and biodegradable matter such as food waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide, and which is a key contributor to climate change.
The alternative is a whole network of Incineration\Energy From Waste (EfW) plants, which government is planning to roll out across the UK to burn our rubbish instead of burying it. However organisations such as Friends of the Earth have raised questions over the environmental impact of such facilities and are also concerned that incinerators create less energy by burning waste than that which is saved through recycling.
Whatever the outcome, the answer now seemed obvious. While local councils are making efforts to increase recycling opportunities, including anaerobic digestion solutions for food waste, as a consumer society we need to take more responsibility and seek more control over our waste. Most importantly we need to reduce the amount of rubbish that comes our way, allowing us to reduce the amount that we then have to throw away, which is why the idea of zero waste is becoming increasingly relevant. By voting with our wallets, industry will follow and indeed more and more manufacturers are already switching processes and materials to create less wasteful products for us to buy.
I’d been so used to throwing my rubbish away. But as Anita Roddick once quoted in a Body Shop campaign, there is no such place as away and this was the living proof. I now realised that while I was sorting out my own rubbish at home, something else was afoot and I couldn’t believe I’d been blind to it all. Whether I was dodging the yoghurt pots in the old days or doing my bit for recycling now, my own choices and habits were having an impact on the country, its reputation and the environment.
When the interview ended, I left the site, but not before finding a place to leave my own small bag of rubbish that I’d taken as an emergency prop.
I was told I could throw it anywhere. So I looked around for an appropriate spot but it took me a while to find one. I knew this was landfill, a place where we are allowed to send our rubbish and even pay for the privilege to do so, but on this occasion it felt totally wrong.
I dropped my small bag on the side of a bank and then left, with a feeling of responsibility and guilt. It didn’t feel like a privilege or even a relief to throw it away. It felt as if I’d littered the countryside.
*As an incentive to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill, last year landfill tax was increased to £32 per tonne. Today - one year on - it is now £40 per tonne. In just twelve months time taxpayers will be looking at a bill of £48 per tonne - that's a rise of £16 in just two years.