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Talking Rubbish in South Yorkshire

Wending my way down the east coast of England, me and my two bags of rubbish on the front seat came to roost in the birthplace of governmental recycling policy: Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

It is said that the average person generates just over two kilograms, or four and a half pounds, of waste per day although that figure does not include the human waste that goes down the loo. Since compostable, woodchip cat litter returned to the menu, I would be surprised if I generated anything like that much daily currently. That said, I am acutely aware that I produce around twenty to thirty litres of disposable matter per day if I claim the cat’s share for myself and our production does include some loo substances too.

One of the restrictions of vanlife is that I can no longer dedicate time to sorting rubbish into paper, metal and plastic because I simply do not have the space, nor access to, suitable receptacles. Instead I rely upon public amenities usually at service stations or roadside and then discreetly chuck the lot into their bins. Vanlifers encourage one another to tap into one’s inner womble: it is in our interests to leave an area tidier than when we pitched up in the battle to retain access to spaces, but how universally this is applied, I cannot say. All I know is that once a week, I collect up an additional fifty litres - usually wet wipes, cigarette packets, drinks containers and crisp wrappers.

Alas, I had nothing made of glass with which to commemorate the location of the nation’s first bottle bank because, unlike in 1977, milk, fizzy drinks and cosmetics are now barely ever sold in glass containers. As an aside, I wonder why the producers of wine and spirits never adopted the significantly cheaper to produce plastic and just slapped on a ‘best before’ date on it like every other perishable good seemed to?

Some might say South Yorkshire is the birthplace of recycling but one does have to overlook that in the 1950s housewives had to be taught how to make waste. Marketeers extolled how time could be spared by single-use plastic cutlery, plates and disposable wax-sheened cups or cajolled into buying pre-packaged meals. The Second World War had reduced our rubbish to near zilch, and even prior to that, we were incredibly efficient at recycling - with many bulkier items like glassware being subjected to a deposit-based benefit. Odd to think now, but women once needed demonstrations on how to use clingfilm rather than tupperware and we had to be convinced that plastic carrier bags were better than linen shopping bags.

These days, there are 50,000 bottle banks of varying colours dotted about the country dedicated to collecting glass. They encourage the environmentally conscious to sort their vessels into brown, clear or green matter. Approximately one-fifth of the nation uses them. I suspect more would except the dramatic smashing of glass may well be accompanied by the passing thought that any people loitering nearby might suspect one has an alcohol problem. Rest assured: alcoholics and alcohol abusers don’t use the allocated receptacles, preferring instead to drop them in hedgerows, street bins, and their neighbour’s wheelie bins. A little less paranoia and we as a nation could be significantly better contributors to the glass recycling industry.

Many of England's councils, but by no means all, allocate separate bins for glassware to each house. Such provision does not demand one sorts their glass by colour. Except must never put Pyrex no matter how brown the glass is. Nor should one use it to discard lightbulbs, spectacles, some drinking glasses, vases, mirrors and bottles containing nail varnish. And that's just for glass matter, the rest of one's rubbish is similarly confounding. One practically needs a GCSE in recycling, and even then it must be localised to suit their local county's policy. It's a good enough reason alone to never move house!

It is possibly for the reason of county-generated policy that England is said to be the laggard of Europe when it comes to salvaging glass - a substance that is 100% recyclable and requires 40% less energy to smelt that mixing it from sand, soda ash and limestone. This is in part attributed to too few councils providing dedicated glass collection bins. Even fewer demand that one colour-coordinates their glassware unlike what happens in Germany, that bastion of comparable efficiency.

Around ten years ago, we were recycling around half of what our German cousins did, the undisputed kings of European glass recycling. Then Covid happened. Suddenly, the glassware was taken away from the hospitality industry and put into the homes of humans who were restricted in their movements. And bam! Our glass recycling targets were shattered - reaching a rate of recycling of 76.5%, which is 3.5% shy of the government's target of 80% by 2030.

Not that the government gave any credit to the people, of course. The government at the time (let's face it: the contents of our national cabinet is frequently smashed) was too busy hosting their own very private cheese and wine parties. These, I have no doubt were being supplied by professional caterers, and it turns out that commercial victualers are significantly less likely to recycle than your average householder. Glass is, as I have already said, 100% recyclable: yet interestingly, only household glass is weighed, assessed, analysed or otherwise obliterated into data.

Glass windows and greenhouse panes at the end of their utility simply end up as landfill each year, albeit a small quantity is crushed down to make aggregate in road construction. The remaining 200,000 tonnes of it is simply made mountains of because there is absolutely no financial imperative for demolition companies to recycle it. To put that in perspective: each household throws away around one-eighth of a ton of glass per annum, so it’s the equivalent of 1.6 million households not bothering to recycle their glass on top of the approximate six and a half million households who prefer to send it to landfill for reasons of confusion, lack of appropriate bin, sheer exhaustion, incompetence or laziness. Delete as appropriate.

In over half of British houses, it remains the “man’s job” to take the bin out. It is also the man’s job to change the lightbulbs, remove the spiders, mow the lawn, dust the surfaces, mop the floor, hoover the carpets, sort the recycling, scrub the toilet and change the beds. Although this is only typical if he lives alone and doesn’t hire a cleaner*.

Most bizarrely, having rescued the home by removing the household waste from the receptacle indoors to the receptacle outdoors: it was typically the woman who moved the wheelie bin from its usual position to the kerb to await collection. She was also responsible for returning it too*.

*It almost goes without staying that this assumes the household was very traditional, very conservative and very heterosexual, but I'm simply making the point that once upon a time, taking the bin out was classified “the man’s job” in the national psyche.

Unsurprisingly, this all changed with the advent of recycling. Women, it is reported, are twice as likely to comply with a myriad of guidelines surrounding recycling.

The advent of multiple bin management systems being incorporated into the kitchen meant the kitchen bin was no longer a fetid heaving mess threatening the welfare of the home. No more could men replicate the scenario of swooping in to rescue the incumbents from the rancid peril, saving the day just in time for bin collection. No! These days almost all plastic, glass or tin has to be put through the dishwasher first then crushed before being sorted into piles of appropriacy and then taken to a larger receptacle to await collection once a fortnight. This, of course, varies according to one’s postcode, And somehow all this complexity turned the tables, introducing near-on equality to what was previously denoted as “men’s work.”

It is even more heartening to read that the waste management sector is just one of three industries where women out-earn men - by a whopping 7%. This is largely attributed to the fact that the calculations are based on the median hourly rate of all workers at all ranks, rather than being role specific or hierarchy. The fact that almost all “binmen”, nowadays called “waste management operatives”, are indeed men earning about a couple of pounds above minimum wage. The women employed are more likely to be in the junior to middle management roles and so their earnings warp the statistics quite considerably.

That the job of binman fits around childcare so well is the burning attraction of such a position; it readily lends itself to part-time hours and by walking up to nine miles a day one would save a fortune in gym membership. Given women have become so adept at driving wheelie bins to the kerb, combined with the fact that there’s no heavy lifting involved any more, it’s a wonder that the work remains almost spectacularly male.

But then again, with society functioning as it does, not really.

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