Kirsty Gunn: Call the bins police, I'd like to report a bunch of eco hypocrites

Edinburghs proliferation of wheelie bins and collection days makes recycling complicated. Picture: Scott TaylorEdinburghs proliferation of wheelie bins and collection days makes recycling complicated. Picture: Scott Taylor
Edinburghs proliferation of wheelie bins and collection days makes recycling complicated. Picture: Scott Taylor
I am starting to think all this obsession with recycling and waste disposal is, well . . . a load of old rubbish. Last weekend, in the Edinburgh suburbs, I watched my elderly mother-in-law agonise over three kinds of wheelie bin and their contents whilst I stood by helpless, holding a foil wrap cat food pouch with my own questions about its disposal left unanswered.

“What one should I put this in, then?” I’d asked earlier, while we were tidying up together after a very nice supper where we’d been talking about families and getting older, and – in a very cheerful frame of mood, I have to say – assisted dying. “It’s kind of half recycling packaging, but half not” I said, showing her a lemon tart box that had lemon tart residue still in it. “We don’t have any of this nonsense up in Sutherland, you know” I added. “This would would simply go into a regular black bin bag and all the clean bottles and tins and paper into the recycling box that’s picked up every other Tuesday. In addition,” I went on, “How you can understand . . . that –” I indicated at the complex rubric pinned to the kitchen wall “is beyond me.”

We both peered at the thing, indicating by way of impossible diagrams and fiendish numerical charts to the citizens of the Athens of the North what days one was NOT permitted to put out certain kinds of rubbish. “It’s impossible! “ I finished. And I’m not nearly 90 thinking about end of life issues and the ethics of assisted dying. I’m not struggling to put the bins out in the first place.

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Yet there they were, the wheelie bin army, lined up accusingly in the back garden in their three militantly-coded colourways. And somehow my husband’s mother, at the end of a long life bringing up three children and grandchildren too, was expected now to be devoting her twilight hours to planning around their dispersal, all thoughts gone into rubbish disposal on the correct day. It made me think there must be something wrong with our priorities, with the way we spend our time – irrespective of how eco-minded we may be. Something wrong, in short, about how we think about our waste.

And we still hadn’t sorted out the issue of the soiled tart box. After all, how could I put it in “Recycling” when it had . . . food residue? And what to do with the aforementioned foil pouch containing the smears of the kit’s supper, for that matter, when I would have normally placed it in the kind of bin for which, I’d just found out, black bin liners were prohibited. “The rubbish people don’t want them” Maureen had told me. “They’re to heave the rubbish straight out the wheelie bins into the big lorries and be off so there are to be no bags, or so I’ve been told. It impedes, you see, the process.”

Mmmm. Well, we are all getting just a bit too well used to being told how not to impede this and that, how to micromanage our lives, in fact. I’ve addressed the same kind of issue in these pages before – specifically in terms of the damage massive amounts of unnecessary administration is doing to our educational establishments – following the same devastation being wreaked upon our National Health Service and across great swathes of the public sector, from transport networks to arts funding bodies like Creative Scotland.

Now it seems, the same systems and operations and various kinds of “Actions” – as I ‘ve heard management people in my own university term certain kinds of decisions to do certain kinds of management-ish things – have been let loose in a particular area of domestic life as well. It’s those overly developed levels of bureaucracy again again . . . For rubbish? Don’t we all have better things to do with our time than take up garbage disposal as a part-time job?

All this makes me sound as though I’m chuck-out happy. That I’m blithely and irresponsibly waste- casual – rubbish at being green. Which isn’t the case at all when I’m the first to re-use and recycle, to almost pathological degrees and often to my daughters’ horror – “Do we really have to eat that again?” - and embarrassment – “Why can’t we use a new bit of cling film?” “No one else uses the bread bag for their sandwiches.” Etc. etc. Of course I want a wonderful sparkling clean planet like the rest of us; I stop the car in Sutherland to pick rubbish off the side of the road. We all of us need to care. But this three kinds of bins for three kinds of rubbish malarkey, this enforcement of a bins police that would have us vigorously washing out every tuna can with Fairy Liquid in order that it may be responsibly and odourlessly directed into the correct recycling aperture seems, as well as being downright intrusive, rather like bolting the stable door after the horse has scarpered. Leaving a stall full of manure, in this case, and a bunch of half-eaten hay. Or something to that effect . . . Because it’s all those cat food foil pouches and the tart boxes that have been created for our convenience and as part of the great reification of supermarket shopping that is the real problem.

Creating a market that encourages customers to view filling their trolleys as a leisure activity and having us all supposedly transforming our every kitchen into a foodie paradise is to create rubbish, loads more of it than ever before. Not to mention waste.

Politicians can go on and on about wanting to show off their countries as being more green and eco-minded than the next, but until we think green, eat green and shop green, we’re just a big bunch of eco hypocrites.

Sure, put the paper and bottles in the paper and bottle recycling. Yes, I suppose – put the tins in there too, and reserve general throwaway for landfill – though in black bags, please.

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But really. Asking a near 90- year-old to scrape one tomato skin into a tiny food compost bucket that’s hard to keep clean, wash out cat food pouches by hand and manfully wheel industrial-sized recycling containers out on to the street and then back again? Only to have to wait, heart in mouth, while the various monster-sized lorries drag their gigantic carbon footprints through the city streets, all the time hoping you’ve got the collection day right and the rubbish won’t be left uncollected . . . Is a waste of time and a life.

My mother-in-law – fit as a fiddle, incidentally, and out every night at History Society Meetings and Book Groups – wants to join a militant campaign to promote assisted dying. Not spend her twilight hours sorting compost from cling film.