I can’t remember if I shared the gleeful news as it happened, at the beginning of lock-down, when my son GAVE UP napping in his bed. Totally. Just refused to lie down and go the f**k to sleep. So since March, I’ve been roaming the streets of our estate for an hour every day (whatever the weather… lucky me), to get him to nap in his buggy. Whilst agonising if actually I should really be letting him drop his nap, but also agonising about the loss of the hour to myself, even if it’s no longer at home. I joined Audible (I got two months free on a special lock-down offer I think) and I’ve been listening to all sorts of erudite books, including this whopper of a romp through English history, and some great stuff by Dan Jones. I’m also slightly overwhelmed by the wealth of knowledge available in The Great Courses series. I literally do not have enough time left to me on this planet to learn about all the things I want to learn about.
Anyway. Walking around the estate. So, where we live is a part of South East London which is not quite yet gentrified, I think it would be fair to say. We have an organic greengrocer but no decent coffee. So it’s far from being a place of universal middle-class privilege (I wrote about plastic-free choices, privilege and the pandemic a few weeks ago, here).
Like a lot of communities, there has been a major rubbish problem round here. Fly-tipping, over-flowing wheelie bins, litter in the streets, gloves and masks discarded on the pavement. And I’ve spent a lot of time walking past it and around it, and thinking about why it’s there and what we could do differently as a society.
First, the wheelie bins. They’re over-flowing because there have been a few weeks when waste collections have been missed (due, presumably, to staff shortages within the refuse collection teams). So, would that rubbish have been there anyway, and just taken away more promptly, or is there more of it during the pandemic, because people are at home? Is it only seen a problem because it’s now visible?
In normal times, maybe all that stuff would just have been transported to the waste management centre more promptly, so we wouldn’t see it. The unrecyclable stuff would still have been incinerated. The recyclable stuff would still have the carbon footprint of energy use during the recycling process, or end up not being recycled and being shipped overseas (this hasn’t gone away, folks). Is there more rubbish because we’re all at home more? But does it matter whether I’m buying M & S ready-made salads to eat at home, or having them out and about from Pret? (I don’t actually do either, much, but you get my point – a plastic tub still gets put into the waste stream, somewhere, as a result of someone’s lunch, wherever they have it). And there’s more litter on the streets because the bins are all full, so it blows around.
The fundamental point I’m trying to make here is that the rubbish is still a problem, whether it’s in the bin or on the pavement. Yes, maybe it’s more likely to be recycled if the bins aren’t over-flowing so that people can use the correct bins. But I have to say this now – our bins haven’t been overflowing at all during the lock-down and we’ve recycled as much as ever. So why don’t other people? Why did I see a rusty barbecue in someone’s food waste bin yesterday? Is the problem a lack of knowledge? Or people just don’t care? Or they’ve been so determined to declutter during lockdown and there’s no other exit route at the moment (or there wasn’t before the tip and the charity shops reopened) that they’ll put it anywhere to get rid of it. Are people SO devoted to Marie Kondo?
So what do we do? I am obviously perfect in every way. All my rubbish goes in the correct bins, all recycling is washed and dried, food waste bin is used appropriately, any stuff to be donated or taken to the tip is stored until we can get it out of the house responsibly. (OF COURSE I’m not perfect by the way. I bought three tubs of M and S salad yesterday as a treat when I could have just bought a lettuce, some tomatoes and some mayonnaise. Those tubs might end up in the sea. Nothing is simple). But how do we influence people who dispose of their rubbish irresponsibly?
Would you challenge someone who you saw dropping litter? I sure as hell wouldn’t, but I know people who would, and I have huge admiration for them. Would you knock on someone’s door and attempt to educate them, if you saw their bins full of the wrong stuff? (Things I’ve seen this week – a food/garden waste bin FULL of clothes, a recycling bin over-flowing with building waste, and another one with a birdcage in. We live in an eclectic area, for sure). I wouldn’t knock on someone’s door, but I think I am going to write to the Council and suggest that more education is needed about what bins to use. Last time I raised this with them, they said all the information was available on their website – this doesn’t seem to be enough. Should people be fined for using the wrong bins and dropping litter? Yes, sure, but do local authorities in Tory Britain have enough manpower for this…? Um, no.
On my latest to do list is to remind myself of the work of these fine people and see how I can get more involved – anyone remember that song from the 80s we used to sing in school about not dumping rubbish? Keep the countryside tidy, keep the countryside clean…. I can’t find it on YouTube and it’s annoying me! Is this stuff taught in schools anymore? I have no idea – except that my two year old knows how to throw his snack wrapper in a bin, and knows which one of our bins is for recycling.
Fundamentally, we’ve got a choice to make in this journey towards sustainability. Either we just focus on our own households, and try to ignore other people’s bad behaviour, or we think about ways to influence others to live in a way which is less damaging to the environment. Like, we could choose to sit in judgement over people for buying fast fashion, and queuing up outside Primark when it reopened (I’m going to come back to this for another post, cos I’m still cross about it), while being all smug about the organic cotton baby clothes we buy for our kids and our fabulous charity shop finds (which we are lucky enough to have time to hunt out). Or we can try to empathise about why some people are dependent on cheap clothing shops, and think creatively about how to make sustainable clothing more accessible to everyone.
But I draw the line somewhere. If you went to Bournemouth beach and left your own excrement there in a nappy bag for someone else to clear up, you’re a prat. If you’ve ever thrown your potentially contaminated mask and gloves on the pavement for someone else to pick up, you’re a prat.
And if you’re the person who’s responsible for this random pile of nonsense in my local park, you’re definitely a prat. I’d love to know how we can de-pratify the sections of society that think this is ok, but honestly, some days I don’t have much hope. If anyone has any brilliant litter-busting ideas to share, I would love to hear them!