Rotten boroughs

Maggots in bins and fines for non-compliance: the joys of recycling in suburban London.

Emily Hill

Topics Science & Tech

So what was the all-consuming subject of dinner party conversation in London boroughs like Harrow or Islington this summer? Apparently, it was rubbish. And more specifically, maggots. As recycling was made compulsory in these boroughs, former keen beans found their enthusiasm rot with ‘smells, maggots, missed collections and chaos.’

Disgruntled of Pinner writes that the ‘council introduced compulsory recycling months ago and it was a shambles… they couldn’t cope with the amount of stuff in the green boxes – bin men just left any overflow in the streets. Streets became refuse-strewn and Pinner incredibly smelly.’

Charlotte Ross, of Islington, who had been a committed voluntary recycler (even after watching a BBC documentary which revealed that the council was shipping her carefully sorted recyclables ‘to be dumped in Indonesia’) found her zeal evaporated in the hot weather: ‘No matter how often we emptied and cleaned our brown compost bins, they seemed to attract a plague of flies. Each time I opened the bin a cloud of tiny insects flew out to circle the fruit bowl or fridge… Imagine my horror when I opened the outdoor bin to find a slimy mass of maggots and grey bugs.’

But is such outrage provoking a rebellion in suburban London? Harrow is the latest council to institute a scheme of compulsory recycling. In the St. Ann’s shopping centre, with its vast, clean floors and bright blue branding signs, and chain stores like Boots, Shoe Zone and Primark, there’s the bustle of lunch and a crowd swelled by the torrential downpour outdoors. Are these residents good recyclers?

Barbara Thornton, an elderly lady with a beige raincoat, a thick layer of bright pink lipstick and a large carrier bag weighing her down, is a big enthusiast for recycling. ‘Oh yes,’ she says, ‘Yes, I recycle. I recycle newspapers, bottles, tins, aerosols… I’m very keen.’ But what about making it compulsory – should people be made to recycle? ‘It’s a tricky subject but I do think people should do it. It’s just laziness if they don’t. I hate it when I see people drop rubbish. It really gets my goat because it’s so slovenly.’

A portly young Asian woman sitting on a bench, staring into space, monosyllabically resists the urge to recycle. But is recycling a good idea? ‘Yes.’ Why doesn’t she recycle then? ‘I don’t know.’ Does she have children? ‘One.’ Well, what about recycling nappies: ‘No way. Too smelly.’ What about switching to cotton nappies with the £100 start-up bursary from Harrow council? ‘No. Too much effort.’

In St Georges Centre, a man in a suit eating a sandwich tells me that he recycles. If it’s compulsory, he explains, ‘then you should do it. Everyone should.’ Mrs Holmes of North Harrow is an elegant lady with an Australian accent, sitting in state with her shopping bags on a white bench just outside Woolworths. ‘I’ve recycled for two years and I’ve had a compost bin for 43 years. But I’m not in favour of them putting a chip in the bin. It’s too Big Brother.’ Does she know any dissenters to rubbish sorting? ‘I know several people that aren’t recycling. For six years they’ve never used their recycling bins. But it’s up to them to rectify it.’ She works up spittle on the subject of the bins, however, which are clogging up the street and making it difficult for people to sell their houses.

Her ire is really reserved for the subject of composting. ‘I was told 50 years ago, never to put bones on compost because it brings rats. Now, for food waste recycling we’re told to put fish bones and meat in – I feel sorry for the people who have to live near it. It’ll attract vermin, bow flies, it must stink to high heaven.’

Quite a few people to whom I mention recycling refuse to talk. But in some, enthusiasm for recycling verges on evangelism. A World Vision salesman asks me: ‘How can people throw away cans? Damn! No one thinks about these things. Well I do. But I’m an environmental scientist.’

In the shopping arcades of Harrow, the consensus seems to be that recycling is a ‘good’ thing and we should all get on with it, regardless of whether it’s ultimately of any use. So it is left to the press spokesperson for Harrow Council to fill me in on the details of Harrovian disgruntlement. Residents, she explains, are ‘creatures of habit’. When the new system of collections on alternate weeks for recycling and landfill collection were first introduced over the summer, ‘Bins were overflowing, as a lot of people thought “oh sod it” and just carried on regardless.’ This had put ‘more pressure on our refuse collectors. There was one case where a refuse collector was attacked… but we can’t connect it, as police haven’t managed to find the person responsible’.

At the minute, the spokesperson explains, the Council is holding back on issuing fines. ‘We’re encouraging them’, she says. If there are things in the bin which are ‘wrong’ then the council officers ‘leave the offending item in the box’ to ‘show’ them. They will look at other measures ‘further down the line, if it’s not taken up voluntarily’.

Harrow council have ordered 36,000 new bins with computer chips – which can be used to identify a bin with a particular household – because it was cheaper to buy bins with chips than without. Using the chips, there is the potential to charge households according to how much waste they dispose of. But Harrow council do not have the technology to use the chips and, at present, have no plans to. When I ask how much these bins cost, it turns out that the computer system is ‘down’ and a figure cannot be retrieved.

A figure which is certain, however, is the fine imposed on the council for one batch of contaminated organic waste. If a load of organic waste is contaminated with something as trivial as a polystyrene cup, the council will be fined £600. The council are thus under pressure to educate people never to do such a thing. Educational campaigns, leaflets, editorial adverts, posters, council magazines have all been distributed to every home. ‘Are they made of recycled materials?’ I ask. ‘I don’t know,’ the press officer replies, ‘but they’re recyclable’.

Therein lies the rub. For people living in a modern and developed country, picking through your rubbish seems like a step backwards. As Disgruntled of Pinner notes, no-one seems to be pointing out ‘the backwardness of scrabbling round in our kitchens wrapping up bits of newspaper versus the historical advances of municipal refuse collection’. Composting food and leaves, or recycling paper and card, is not saving precious resources. Yet, the argument that recycling must be a Good Thing is rarely challenged. Where recycling makes economic sense – particularly in relation to commercial and industrial waste – it already happens. Imposing recycling from above with a big stick for those who fail to comply only illustrates that there is no clamour for it, or financial logic behind it.

If there is no demand for the products of recycling, the whole process is not only tiresome, costly and unhygienic but pointless, too. Recycling is an empty ritual designed to make us feel better about ourselves – and with the increasing levels of compulsion, we are going to feel good whether we like it or not.

Read on:

Bin these authoritarian policies, by Rob Lyons

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Topics Science & Tech


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