ground down

A rare item of good news arrived in the Normal/Fixit    in-tray    this month, with the solution of the problem of what to do with all the compost piling up malodorously right outside the kitchen window. There are limits to how much compost a mostly paved city pocket hankie can actually absorb.

The solution arrived in the form of two brown plastic bins, gifts from our prize-winning  local council.    The larger bin sits with the others outside the front door, ready to receive the contents of the smaller one, which is intended to live in the the kitchen, receiving any and all food waste into a compostable liner (which we have to replace every day, at our own expense, of course), and be emptied throughout the week into its big sibling outside.

Mr Fixit responded to this development by putting his life on hold while he scoured London for a kitchen bin of identical dimensions but in Bauhaus grey, bombarding me the while with visual and other evidence for the aesthetic superiority of    the Germans  in this respect.

So we now have in the kitchen, three grey German bins, and outside our front door, a galvanised steel rack holding two large green bins for cans, bottles and plastic, two large blue bags for paper and cardboard, one medium sized brown bin for food waste, and a malodorous dustbin for whatever’s left – usually something smelling of fish.

We also have several entirely separate collection teams who behave like the products of a particularly acrimonious marital split, only appearing when they’re sure the others won’t be around, and half the time not even then. I have the personal mobile phone numbers of several highly placed officials in the Street Environment department on speed dial, and still we’re lugging half of it up to the depot. Sometimes they take one bit, sometimes another. Capricious as Kate Moss in Harvey Nicks.

And this week they’re    digging up the street  ,  so they haven’t come at all.

All of this would be bad enough for marital relations, without constant reminders of the futility of these efforts at the domestic level. The last time Mr Fixit and I attempted a romantic evening out, we ended up on the    South Bank,    where I thought I’d celebrate with a glass of wine. But a glass of wine was not to be had.

The wine was not a problem – this is London, liver transplant capital of the universe. The problem was a glass. ‘We don’t have glasses tonight,’ announced the cocktail jockey, while my beloved, sensing trouble ahead, edged to a distance where he had a chance of escaping association with the lunatic at the bar. A quick scan having revealed that, in very deed, the thousands of tumblers,    flutes    and goblets normally associated with the consumption of alcohol were totally not there, I grumpily settled for my filthy European rose in plastic, before joining the handsome stranger thirty feet away, staring out of the window at the memory of the carefree, easygoing human he once invited to co-produce his children.

Ten minutes later, it was time to go. Mr Fixit put his beer bottle on the table, and said, ‘What are you doing scroffling around in that    backpack?    ? And, for that matter, what are you doing lugging a backpack at all, on our rare romantic evening out?’

‘Err – I’m just taking this plastic thing home to recycle’, I responded.

‘And what are all those other bulges, then?’

‘Umm – one or two others, that people seem carelessly to have left behind.’

‘Look around, madwoman!’ So I did, and I got his point. It would have been hard not to. All around us was an ocean of cups, glasses, plates, knives and sandwich wrappers. It was like Japan at    blossom time.    Or the Somme in 1915. Either way, it was clear that no hundred backpacks would be up to hauling away even a thousandth part of it. ‘And by the way’, he added. ‘Do that again, EVER, when you’re out with me, and we’re getting a divorce.’

I’m not totally confident that my children would forgive me for breaking up the family home over the fate of the capital’s plastic drinkware, but that and the Camp Bestival experience got me thinking, and not just about which half of the household would end up with the rather desirable    Siamese cat  . 

In the old days, if you wanted a drink or a snack out, you’d go to a cafe, sit down, have your tea out of a  chipped mug    and your toast off a thick white plate, and they’d be washed up while the next customer waited, to be reused a thousand times.

These days, we’re all galloping everywhere, everything has to be    taken with us  ,  and the result is an avalanche of rubbish. Costa alone uses over a hundred million coffee cups a year, for instance. Add to that Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Pret and Eat, and imagine the numbers. Something approaching a billion paper cups, two or three billion    napkins  ,  and the same number of plates, knives, spoons, sandwich wrappings and granola pots avalanching into rubbish bins, just in the UK, every year.

There are no laws or regulations at all constraining what they use, or how they or their customers dispose of it. We humble citizens recycle and compost because if we don’t, the council won’t take the damn stuff away, but businesses use commercial contractors, so they don’t need council services, and they can do what they like.

And what they like turns out to be wildly various. Recycling bins    take up space  ,  which most of the cafes would rather use for packing in more customers. But there are contractors who will take it all away, then split and separate and recycle offsite – though that also costs, of course. So there’s actually nothing to stop any of the big chains from recycling everything, except the desire to make money.

And a tertiary degree in    packaging technologies  ,  perhaps. A cardboard coffee cup might be perfectly recyclable – until you print on it, at which point it becomes useless. So Costa’s current crusade is to use vegetable ink on their cups, which can then apparently be recycled – into a box, but not food packaging.

That’s if you can actually find a bin to recycle it in. There are no recycling bins in Costa shops.  Pret have them in most of theirs, and are planning to send nothing at all to landfill by 2012 – leftovers to the    homeless,    other food waste to farmers for compost, recyclables to recycle, and everything else magically turned into fuel pellets.

Starbucks, on the other hand, say they ‘aim’ to have only recyclable cups by 2015, but they don’t offer customers a place to recycle them, either. Nor does anybody else. So we’ll still have to wander the streets with our recyclable cups, searching for an appropriate bin, while we worry about the ink and the glue.

As usual, however, it turns out – at least from their perspective – to be all our own fault. Peyton and Byrne tried to persuade its customers to use    wooden cutlery , and we complained about the taste. So now they’re all excited about    cornstarch , which looks and tastes like plastic, but behaves like paper and rots down.

P and B only operate in posh places where they can charge a lot, and pass on the extra costs of recyclables and degradables. They pack all their sandwiches in expensive biodegradable film, but apparently people also expect a little cardboard spine, to make them upstanding and geometric, not pillowy and amateurish. The problem there is that the cardboard then has to be married to the bit you can see it through, and once that happens, none of it can be recycled.

There is an alternative. There always is. Think of those little cardboard cups as your children. You can’t throw them away – there is, as the poster memorably tells us, no away. (Specially now the Social Services have been hit by Cuts, and any minute now the Big Society will be    billeting    all the children currently in care, on anybody with a spare room and a Wii.)

Imagine yourself scurrying from the tube to the office, trailed by a forlorn    crocodile    of several thousand disposables for which you are personally responsible, getting longer every day.

Now, imagine you’d never spawned them at all in the first place, but instead allowed yourself ten minutes a day to sit over your coffee in its comforting china mug, and daydream about a better world. That sounds good to me.