The Things We Throw Away

Andrew O’Hagan

By the time I worked out the style of our death the leaves were back on the trees. The journey in search of rubbish had taken the whole winter long and now I was here with the bins. The evening it was all over I emptied the latest rubbish onto some newspapers spread out on the kitchen floor – a cornflakes packet and old razor blades, apple cores and cotton buds. Looking through the stuff I felt how secret the story had been. I’d gone looking for the end but had always been brought back to this, the rubbish on the floor appearing grave and autobiographical. The seasons are like that and so is our trash: you examine their habits of repetition for long enough and you begin to think of lost time.

It began one night in Camberwell when the orange of the streetlamps was fighting to show through the fog. Alf started up his van and weaved past some roadworks, dodging the cones but not the sleet that flew to the windscreen and vanished. ‘My goodness,’ he said, ‘if this is life I don’t want it.’ He was talking about the way he felt when he worked as an account executive in a marketing design company. ‘I finally found out that it was only worth living for love, not money.’

‘What do you mean, living for love?’ I said. He ran a hand through his hair and stroked his cheek.

‘Putting other people’s needs before my own,’ he said. ‘When I left that hideous job I got a sense we were all interconnected. Freeganism tries to connect with people’s needs – putting community first. In 2002, I decided to devote my life to getting the message out and living as sincerely as possible. Instead of using money and all that I wanted to tread more lightly on the earth. I took everything to extremes in my old life.’ Alf is 33 years old. His friend Martin, a fellow Freegan, popped his head through from the back of the van and pushed his glasses up his nose. Martin is 36 and comes from Sydney. He said he was disillusioned as a teenager by the way everyone was obsessed with money and ownership. ‘You’ve got to take everything to a logical conclusion,’ he said. ‘We’ve given up all our possessions, because, like Mill said, if you want to bring down a corrupt system then you might want to stop buying its products.’

‘Yeah,’ said Alf. ‘You’ve got to fight the greed in the world by fighting the greed in yourself. Look. Forty per cent of all food in the UK is wasted. Studies say we’re the biggest wasters in the world. And the religion of economics has waste as an important component in it.’

‘Yes,’ said Martin. ‘True spirituality overcomes the greed. What we want to do is relinquish power. Lay down your life. Share what you have.’

We passed Peckham Rye and could see blue rooms, television pictures flashing in each flat. Alf and Martin were saying that the way to live properly was to resist commerce. Their philosophy, like that of many Freegans, is a sweet-sounding blend of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ, with quite a bit of Tolstoy and Gandhi thrown in. Not using money means that they pick up food from bins: they have regular haunts, up and down the country, and they visit them when travelling around to give out leaflets. ‘We feel joy at all this free food,’ Alf said. ‘And you also feel disgusted to see all this rubbish in the world.’

‘We choose our ignorance, bro,’ said Martin as Alf stopped the van in a car park behind Somerfield.

‘Do you have a relationship with this store?’ I asked.

‘Not one they know about,’ said Alf.

We sat in the van for an hour or more talking about the ethics of waste. I must have got a little tired of Martin saying that everyone should share and that we should all love one another because I asked him how he intended to deal with people who are without virtue. ‘I don’t believe that anyone is without virtue,’ he said.

‘In the spiritual realm,’ added Alf. ‘The greatest leader is the greatest servant.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s all right. But Jesus had a slave’s mentality.’

‘We just want to save resources,’ said Martin, with a sigh. ‘It’s more of a Robin Hood model – we’re stealing from the corporations. We found a bin today with fifty or sixty cartons of milk inside.’

Everything Alf and Martin own is in the van. They sleep in the back and they don’t have sex with anyone. I asked Alf if there wasn’t a lot of anxiety involved in living like this. He told me that the word ‘mortgage’ means ‘death grip’. Rain was coming down heavily on the roof of the van and we sat thinking amid the smell of diesel and socks. ‘Suddenly, everybody in the world needs a dishwasher,’ said Martin.

We pulled up our collars and walked over to the wasteland behind Somerfield. The housing estate wasn’t far away – the flashing blue light was still evident – but there was something very remote about the supermarket at that hour of the night. Alf put a flashlight on a band round his head. He looked like a miner as we turned to where the bins stood, then I saw other lights, and a large group of strangers. ‘Bin raiders,’ said Alf. ‘They all come out at night.’ Some of them were immigrants from Eastern Europe, who had come to London to live the dream. A man from Poland had laid out five plump grapefruit on top of a wooden palette. ‘Are very good,’ he said. ‘Not rubbish.’

Alf and Martin dived into the bins – the Americans don’t call it bin raiding: they call it dumpster diving – and pulled out bread, vegetables, ready meals, packs of mince. They offered much of it to the Polish guys, but they said they already had enough and had a long way to walk home. An old black lady in a claret hat came round and picked up items here and there. ‘Very good here,’ she said. ‘Terrible to waste things just like this.’

‘This is England now,’ I said to Alf, his face lighted somewhat ghoulishly under the lamp on his head.

‘No,’ he said. ‘This is the world, bro.’

The old lady had a large family of grandchildren and lived not far away in Camberwell. She said this was a way to get along.

The men took large clear bags of rubbish back to the van and spread some of the contents on the floor. Alf wiped the items down with a cloth dipped in bleach water and showed me them. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘Sell-by date is two days away. This one, today. Perfectly good to eat.’ Packets of biscuits were lying there and a giant heap of broccoli. Martin read out some of the labels: ‘Chicken and stuffing. Yorkshire pudding. Cashew nuts. Bananas. Three chicken pies. Yesterday.’ The lady in the claret hat came up to the door of the van to ask if we had any butter or bread.

‘Mince?’ asked Alf.

‘Yes,’ said the old lady. ‘Yes. Now, what nice boys you are.’

‘And how about broccoli?’

‘Ah, yes,’ she said. ‘Just enough for tomorrow. That’s great. Are you boys all right for rice?’

‘Very much so,’ said Martin, sheltering from the rain. ‘We’ve got everything we need. Every last thing we need.’

The British government’s review of its waste strategy is due from Defra at the end of this month, but the matter is as much philosophical. The question of what it means to live a good life has become the occasion for personal accounts of what one does with one’s rubbish. This is the way we manage news on the subject, with a growing and often panicked sense of what our personal habits might say about our harmfulness. There are other pressing topics of course, but the environment – and the very local matter of rubbish – is the pamphleteering issue of our time. Yet none of us feels safe with it, none of us knows exactly what to think; intimate disquiet about waste is liable to spring a trap in our minds. ‘Rural England is where urban England now dumps its rubbish,’ Richard Girling writes. ‘Here it tips everything from garbage in landfills to fridges in ponds, broken cars and surplus people.’[1] The Daily Mail says there is a plague of rats in Britain as a result of the lack of care taken in refuse collection. The government has revealed that urban waste is growing by 3.2 per cent a year – faster than GDP. ‘Despite dramatic improvement in recent years, the UK still has the worst recycling record in Europe: 27 per cent of domestic waste, as opposed to Germany’s 57 per cent and Holland’s 64 per cent,’ according to a draft policy document shown to me by the Community Recycling Network. ‘The average person in the UK throws out their body weight in rubbish every three months,’ says Friends of the Earth. ‘Most of this could be reprocessed but instead it is sent to incinerators or landfill.’

We used to stub a cigarette out in an ashtray and never think of it again. Now we think, where will the stub end up, the ash and the foam and the paper? We grew up imagining that rubbish was taken away, only to find there is no such place as ‘away’. The by-products of our desires are hidden in the earth or burned to make a toxic canopy over our heads: we are aware of that now, and that awareness has grown to feed a spirit of personal regeneration. At some level we recycle not to save the planet, but to free the part of ourselves that is enslaved to the world’s goods and the body’s functions.

Some people simply choose to be more sensible about separating what they throw out. Nothing more complicated, and I salute them while continuing to believe that the pressing morality of rubbish – the summits, the sea-change, the plains of discourse, and the brave new worlds of anxiety – represents a powerful turn in our collective mind. At its simplest, we are now putting the Sunday papers in the recycling bin, but at its less simple we may be seeking what Emerson called, in Nature, ‘an original relation to the universe’. The times may have become ripe for turning self-control into a form of evangelism, sensing that our wish to be the planet’s saviours is also a bid for immortality. We discern a new mastery to be enjoyed over the life of everyday stuff and we consider ourselves responsible for stewardship of the ecosystem, or the egosystem.

High above the Brent Reservoir a fringe of red, trailing light was spread across the sky at half past five in the morning. It was still dark on the road and the houses slept as the lorries pulled into the depot. In the artificial brightness of the ‘office’ – a huddle of Portakabins – the binmen were gathered around a newspaper. ‘Here,’ said one of them. ‘Have you seen the new lottery?’

‘Na,’ said another.

‘Breast reduction, mate. Tummy tucks. That’s what you win if you win the lottery: cosmetic surgery.’

Les said he liked the early start and the afternoons off. He has worked in Harrow for more than a dozen years, up early every day and out clearing the bins before anybody is awake. He now drives the truck and considers that a significant upgrade. ‘I’m the gaffer,’ he said, ‘but not really.’ Les and I tried to make jokes but tiredness got to us and the laughter came slower as we progressed along the route. Every few hundred yards I jumped down and joined the lifters as they rolled the bins from people’s yards. That morning the crew were only responsible for collecting organic rubbish. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ said Joshi, whose parents were born in Bangladesh. ‘No matter how many times you give them information, or mark their card, they still contaminate the bloody recycling bins. They hide all sorts of stuff at the bottom of the organic bins – like machine parts. There’s no telling them.’ He showed me one of the bins outside a large house; it had grass on the top and Tesco bags full of paper underneath. Harrow has a system of compulsory recycling: green bins for paper, cans, bottles, and brown bins for organic waste, which includes garden waste and leftover food. People in Harrow who mix the stuff up, or ‘contaminate’, have their rubbish left uncollected, and must pay £20 to get it picked up, after they’ve sorted it; persistent offenders can be prosecuted and fined up to £1000.[2]

Les keeps a chart of the offenders and notes down their addresses. Next to the Rayners Lane Conservative Association, he tried to reverse the bin lorry up a dark lane and Joshi came up to his window shaking his head. ‘Number 9,’ he said. ‘Contaminated.’ Les put on his handbrake and lifted his pen, turning to me at the same time.

‘That’s a bad one, Number 9,’ he said. ‘Number 63 is the same.’

There was a camera in the cabin and I could see Joshi and Sam lifting the bins of the better citizens onto a lifting device and then the stuff being tipped into the compactor. Les started telling me he drove both a BMW and a Renault and that he used to be a bodyguard for the 1970s rock groups Slade and Mud. It was clear he felt he had led a progressive life, and he seemed very composed as he pulled and hauled at the steering wheel. By then the sky had become bluer and people were beginning to queue at the bus stops, heading for Pinner. ‘A lot of the old people,’ Les said, ‘they get worried because of recycling. They don’t understand the new ways and are afraid of the fines.’ As he said this I noticed an elderly lady sweeping open the curtains of a mock-Tudor house with a two-car driveway. ‘But we’ve gone too far, too fast on the recycling,’ he said.

Next to the Jewish Free School, Les beeped his horn when he spotted another veteran of the Harrow refuse system, Fred, who was driving his truck on the other side of the road. ‘Spent years in rubbish,’ Les said. ‘He’s about to retire.’

‘Lucky bastard,’ said Joshi.

It took the best part of six hours for the team to do their round, emptying the bins and marking the contaminators, and the morning was in full flow as Les pointed and laughed at an England flag waving over a house in Hereford Gardens. Half an hour later, we were beyond the suburban rim of Harrow and into the Middlesex countryside, heading at speed for the composting site at the extremity of north-west London.

The place smelled powerfully of rotting Christmas trees. There was smoke rising from the composting area; the process takes ten weeks from the delivery of vegetable matter to the maturation of compost, and not only is it a fulfilment of local councils’ commitment to go greener, it also costs a great deal less than sending the rubbish to landfill sites. West London Composting is licensed by Defra and is the biggest facility of its kind in London, processing 50,000 tons of organic waste a year. When we arrived on the site Les’s vehicle was weighed on a weighbridge; this determined the price that Harrow would receive for the load. I stood at the side of the tipping shed as other trucks arrived and dropped their material into a large hangar, where it was scooped up for shredding. Already steaming, the shredded material is then taken to the composting sheds, where its temperature and oxygen levels are controlled. At the end of the ten weeks it will be bagged and sold for agricultural and commercial use.

Les was shaking his head. The inspector who examines the material in the back of the bin lorries before it is offloaded was not happy. ‘No,’ said the man with the clipboard. ‘Contaminated,’ and then he signed a sheet and handed it to Les. Despite their efforts the gang had allowed too much non-organic rubbish to be tipped into the back of the lorry.

‘The people who are serious about it are very serious,’ said Les.

‘And what about this load?’ I asked.

‘It’s not good enough,’ he said. ‘We’ll take it to Ruislip tip and Harrow will have to pay to dump it there.’

‘That’s a pity,’ I said. ‘A long morning too.’

‘Never mind,’ Les said, turning the wheel and smoothing his hair in the rear-view mirror. ‘We won’t be saving the world today.’

Whoever you speak to, in whichever corner of the waste industry, you are liable to come away with the impression that soft utopianism has taken the place of militant politics in contemporary Britain. Many of these people were born in the 1960s, which means they are not children of the 1960s – dreaming of toppling governments or teaching their uptight professors a lesson – so much as children of the 1980s, a generation all too aware of the limits of idealism. Even the Freegans, for all their hatred of corporations, take it for granted that greed is seen to be good, and their ambition is not to gather political forces but to replenish the spiritual motives of their generation. And those who have joined the establishment – the politicians, the civil servants, the lawyers – speak with energy about ethical improvements in the absence of any notion of revolution. They speak of potential and of broader choices. They speak of personhood and of lifestyle.

Among these people the question of what to do with rubbish is not about ripping up the system, much more about fulfilling your personal goals, increasing the peace, opting for harmony. They don’t curse the world, they compliment it with kind acts, and their attitude to a non-recycler is rather like General William Booth’s attitude to drunks. The hardcore waste community does not hate its enemies, but feels sorry for them, and in every other thing it says appears to believe a new day is dawning.

Though much slower and much less ambitious than the lobbyists would like, the government – which speaks of increasing recycling rates to 40 per cent by 2010, when Friends of the Earth wants 75 per cent by 2015 – has not dodged the bullet when it comes to enforcing penalties on big business to encourage better habits in the way it handles its rubbish. Defra recently commissioned a report from the AEA Energy and Environment Group, a private consultancy, that addresses the question of landfill and how to increase the tax on it. No British person giving an account of their life would think to mention landfill sites, but that is where most of the stuff in the average life ends up. All the bins in all our lives have gone to landfills or incinerators. We have never thought about it, and now that we are thinking about it, say the evangelists, we can never be the same.

‘Final disposal to landfill is considered the least attractive option in the waste hierarchy,’ says the report for Defra:

The largely organic content of food industry wastes can contribute significantly towards the detrimental aspects of landfill (for example, as a source of methane emissions from anaerobic decomposition within the landfill). The EC Landfill Directive sets targets to reduce the amounts of biodegradable wastes (biodegradable municipal wastes) consigned to landfill – the first target has to be achieved by 2010 (for the UK).

Where the amounts are not reduced, waste producers will be taxed to hell. The government recently announced the scale of this taxation, and it is good and punitive, with a medium to long-term rate of £35 per tonne. ‘This provides a very strong driver,’ says the report,

to encourage businesses to take action to reduce their waste sent for landfill disposal. Most noticeably, the landfill tax escalator appears to have brought about an approximately 10 per cent reduction in the tonnages of standard rate waste landfilled in the two years between 2003-4 and 2005-6. This shows that a key policy, closely linked to reduction of waste disposal, is working.[3]

Calvert Landfill site lies in the most beautiful part of Buckinghamshire, snug against a former brickworks. They say that there have been quarries here since the 15th century, when Londoners passed their rubbish to rakers, who dumped it in the Essex Marshes. In later centuries people burned most of their combustible waste in domestic fires, and the dust was taken in carts to be sieved for use in brickmaking. Bottles were reused and plastic was a science fiction. The 19th century was the age of salvage, and Victorian Britain was a recycling nation by necessity: wood was redeployed and bone was ground down; ash was spread on the land, and the only things buried were bodies and vegetable matter. But by 1875, and the Public Health Act, the regulation of household waste had become a priority, dealt with by local authorities. The act stipulated that households maintain a ‘moveable receptacle’ for rubbish – the birth of the bin – and a charge was made for its removal.

The 1930s saw the rise of non-biodegradable rubbish and warnings were issued against dumping. Yet rubbish tips surrounded most urban areas and were constantly on fire. After 1956, and the Clean Air Act, domestic bins began to fill up with paper and packaging (tied to the rise of marketing), and in the 1970s chemical and electrical waste became part of the picture. Overall, the move in domestic trashcans from dust and cinders to paper and plastics has taken a little over a hundred years and has changed the air we breathe.

Calvert has been one of the country’s biggest landfill sites since it opened in the 1980s. April Jennings is a tough, science-educated woman in a man’s world, and nothing appears to bother her, not even the four inches of mud on her boots the day I went to see her. ‘It used to be a bit of a black art, the landfill site in the 1980s,’ she said, ‘but the science of it has improved and we know much more about it. We can recontour the old landfill sites and extend our years.’ She reckons the Calvert site may have about twenty-five years left. The great buzz-phrase in April’s world is ‘renewable energies’ – Tony Blair loved to hear himself say it – and the people at Calvert feel good about the electricity they are able to produce by harvesting the methane gas created by the buried rubbish on their site. ‘We have the capacity to produce 17 megawatts,’ April said. ‘We can extract the last bit of value from what people throw away.’ She seems to shrug at the view (even the government’s view) that landfill is at the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to ways of dealing with Britain’s rubbish. ‘Everything is checked,’ she says.

Her colleague Peter Robinson chips in. ‘The whole area of waste handling and management is so much more technically sound in the UK than it ever was before.’ He smiles. ‘This country’s history of landfill has actually been quite safe; it has served us well.’ On the walls of the management offices at Calvert, there are pictures of green fields and of tractors moving rubbish. ‘It’s all changing,’ Robinson said. ‘We’re moving from a “throw everything away” culture to one of preservation and recycling. In order to make it work there has to be a shift in how we manage our own waste and in how we handle the costs.’ I asked him if there was something alien to the British mind in the idea of making a fuss about what we throw away. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘People don’t have that understanding – but it’s coming in a big way. The UK is trying to do something in a handful of years that other member states in Europe have been doing for a long time.’

Most of the waste at Calvert comes in overnight. There’s a railway beside the landfill and the large cranes and the ghost trains arrived in the dark with their loads of domestic rubbish from London and Bristol. Every day, five days a week, at least four trains a day, each train consisting on average of fifty containers, each holding 15 tons of rubbish. ‘That’s a lot of rubbish,’ I said.

‘It is,’ April said. ‘We have two power stations running off this site. A third of the country’s renewable energy is coming from landfill.’ (The trouble is that only 3 per cent of the UK’s electricity comes from renewable energy sources.) We walked into the heart of the landfill area and April pointed to the trees on the horizon. ‘All the way to there,’ she said. The ground in between was landscaped and looked pretty much like any English scrubland, except that beneath the covering of vegetation there were hundreds of thousands of tons of suppurating English garbage. ‘It’s like an apple pie,’ she said, ‘with the clay as the base and the grass as the sugar.’ I wasn’t sure if this was the right image, conjuring a hot, sticky, unstable filling and a thin crust, but April said it was the best she had. Peter Robinson spoke of the ‘leachate’, the brown liquid that is drawn from the centre of all that old plastic and paper and general rubbish, the liquid being purified onsite and running out clear in a ditch at the end. I could also see pipes – there are 450 of them – drawing off gas that would be harnessed for electricity.

We climbed a ridge of brown sludge to reach the summit. Looking down from there was like staring into a crater of the moon, except that the colossal indentation was filled with rubbish. The sky was very blue above the ridge of sludge and the carrier bags strewn in the mud. The crater was 60 metres deep and a murder of crows swooped above us, followed by seagulls. At the near edge it seemed there were Tesco bags as far as the horizon; I looked down and saw a bottle of children’s bubble mixture, a squashed box of Typhoo tea, a tin of Dulux paint, a Capri Sun fruit drink carton: the recent detritus of an average life, and in the distance there were more plastic bags trapped in the branches of a copse of trees and blowing in and out like struggling lungs. Something in the scale of the rubbish and the size of the canyon dizzied one’s nervous system: a metaphysical smack came with the sight of the layers of used-up stuff, like the feeling that comes when sixty thousand people shout at a football match or a when a million supplicants crowd into Mecca. April walked off and I stood on the ridge of the landfill surveying the scene. A dumped bath, a heap of carpet, a thousand empty bottles of orange squash, a hundred thousand legs of lamb, a million bottles of shampoo: it was all the stuff of life and it was all evidence of death.

‘There are four thousand landfills in the UK,’ April said, as we walked through the mud and the crows dived. ‘This will fill up eventually: landfill is a finite source of waste management.’ For a second I wondered if April had noticed the shock and awe on my face. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘The best thing of all would be for us to stop making waste.’

‘Then you’ll be out of a job,’ I said.

‘I’ll just fall back on my chemistry.’ We both laughed and I saw a seagull (or an albatross) out of the corner of my eye diving to darkness on extended wings. A plastic radio was crushed in the mud against a box of unused Oxo cubes, and I fancied the bird had spotted the shiny paper and was seizing its opportunity. ‘We have a lot of pest control here at Calvert,’ April said. ‘You have to. We keep falcons. These seagulls are notoriously bad for carrying litter and dropping it out there.’ I looked over the trees to the place she called ‘out there’, the villages and commuter towns of Buckinghamshire, and beyond them the cities where people sleep soundly while a train carries away the stock cubes that they forgot to use and then just simply forgot.

We have to believe that the litter of commodities melts into air, just as we do, or else we would have to live very differently in the world, much more consciously in company with the choices we make and the mess we create. Life without rubbish would mean living in a state of ethical awareness that might threaten pleasure – threaten commerce – while never releasing individuals from the facts of the past and the realities of death. We don’t admit it, but the idea of absence is a comfort to the present, for if nothing is away then everything is a deposit. If nothing is away, we are suddenly not dots on a linear track of time but in some sense are constituent with all that has been, or will be. That is not convenient, and it might explain why a real engagement with recycling can come to seem transcendental. It might leave people with the impression that there is more to one’s life than one’s life, and that impression is powering the mood of a generation. Throwing things away has been so essential to our sense of how to live that we forget we invented the process just to increase our pleasures.

Like everything else – like health, like famine relief, like national security – the ethical impulse to minimise our waste must be rendered sensible in business terms before it can be understood to be practical in any other way. The liveliest new thinking in relation to rubbish is therefore about the great financial benefit recycling brings – there are profits to be had, and this is understood to be a motor of change. The concept was essentially invented by the Japanese, by companies such as Toshiba, who invented a system of ‘total quality management’ whereby the manufacturing process would build in the possibility of zero defects. Many Japanese companies are now working on an understanding that their processes will suffer only one defect per million. ‘Transferred to the arena of municipal waste,’ said Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace,

Zero Waste forces attention onto the whole life cycle of products. Zero Waste encompasses producer responsibility, ecodesign, waste reduction, reuse and recycling, all within a single framework. It breaks away from the inflexibility of incinerator-centred systems and offers a new policy framework capable of transforming current linear production and disposal processes into “smart” systems that utilise the resources in municipal waste and generate jobs and wealth for local economies.

At its most basic, this means that a company that aims to produce spoons will have made a plan, before they produce a single spoon, about how to source the metal ethically, how to transport it in vehicles with low carbon emissions, what to do with the metal shavings, how the water that cools the metal will be rerouted back into the system, and how the packaging will be reusable. Zero defects. Zero waste.

Zero Waste may turn out to be one of the key concepts of the post-industrial era. It will change everything: it will change what you are doing now and will do in five minutes. Robin Murray of the London School of Economics has put the matter more purposefully than most. In Zero Waste, his 2002 report for Greenpeace, he peels our habits in relation to rubbish to the core. ‘Waste has been seen as the dark side,’ he writes,

as that against which we define the good. It has been the untouchable in the caste system of commodities. The idea that waste could be useful, that it should come in from the cold and take its place at the table of the living, is one that goes far beyond the technical question of what possible use could be made of this or that. It challenges the whole way we think of things and their uses, about how we define ourselves and our status through commodities, by what we cast out as much as by what we keep in.

If the notion of Zero Waste wasn’t so life-altering and revolutionary it would appear simply sensible. It relies on absolutely no discharge of toxic waste and no atmospheric damage, but it also means a new intolerance of material rubbish. From the Zero Waste point of view, a society in which a person drops a sandwich wrapper in the street would be as unthinkable as one where a person in the street pulled down their pants and shat. Everything would be understood to have an ongoing life. At its best, it amounts to a wholesale reconceptualising of our economic and moral worlds, bringing the idea of ‘away’ into the social sphere of ‘here’. Forgetting to do the right thing with an ice-lolly stick might come to be like forgetting not to kick a dog. (Street cleaners in this country presently clear away half a million tons of rubbish every year.) You would do it automatically because that is what you do, sensing, as a form of knowledge, as a categorical imperative as opposed to a species of choice, that nothing in the world is rubbish. Our focus, then, Murray argues, would be on the material life cycle, in which it should become natural for materials to live and transform and live again. ‘From cradle to cradle,’ he writes, ‘rather than from cradle to grave.’

A recent issue of Resource magazine ran a list of the ‘Hot 100 Agents of Change’ in the waste debate. Standing at number 28 – one above new entrant David Miliband, the environment secretary – is a man called Andy Moore, who is head of the Community Recycling Network. The first time I met him, in the bar at Paddington Station, he seemed weary but refreshingly non-morose when it came to talking about rubbish. He gives the impression of having spoken to everybody and thought of everything: he gave me a head start on some of the trends, and then, several weeks later, I travelled to Bristol to see him in his element.

At the Prince of Wales pub on Gloucester Road, everybody was drinking either Weston’s organic cider or organic real ale. Andy had the latter and he spares no ire on the waste companies. I asked him what his first memory of rubbish was and he spoke about an incinerator that used to exist in Chapman Street in Hull. ‘I was eight,’ he said, ‘but what I remember was a big warehouse with a concrete floor. In the middle was the most massive hole and I knew there was a fire burning underneath. It was a horrible place, owned by the Cleansing Department.’ He also remembers the rag and bone man, who went through the streets shouting two syllables: ‘ra’ bo’.’ He took a sip from his pint and smiled over the glass. ‘Where there’s muck there’s brass,’ he said. ‘That’s an old Yorkshire expression. We’re all Gypsies when it comes to it, looking after the bins. It’s how we used to think. “Sovereignty,” Georges Bataille wrote, “is the freedom to waste.” At festivals, at Christmas, and every day, we waste, we give things away, that is what seemed normal to us.’

The area around the waterway in Bristol has been reinvented. The architects have had a field day, and you detect, thereabouts, the flurry of design competitions and the late-night glow of Anglepoise lamps. People have worked hard to make the place modern, to overcome a possible downturn in West Country parts and labour, but you couldn’t say the results made it the most soulful place on earth. There’s plenty of life around, though, and later that night Andy Moore gathered a few of his waste-industry honchos at a restaurant sited in a former Bristol fire station. Mal Williams is great company, a round, avuncular man who lives in Wales, and Iain Gulland is Scottish and quieter, though not for long. He studied ecology at the University of St Andrews. Each of the men likes a drink and is bound by a sense of social justice tailored to new realities.

‘Are they going to do it?’ I asked. ‘Is the public going to get into the business of changing its character?’

‘Of course,’ said Andy. ‘And business is the right word.’

Mal looked through the candles and the organic wine. ‘The old paradigm was “out of sight, out of mind,” but the new message is more like “you create this waste, you can stop it.” We are all defining a new kind of industry now.’ He made it clear – they all did – that they don’t believe it will be the waste companies who lead the way. The waste companies, they say, have changed for the better but they still have an old-fashioned view of how to profit from rubbish. Bury or burn is the philosophy, and that won’t do any longer because the rest of the world isn’t having it.

‘In Denmark in the 1970s they stuck it into education,’ said Iain. ‘They said, “We’ll invest in the young,” and out of that they developed high standards of environmental protection. And those people are now voting. Next thing we knew they want 10p on plastic bags. But we have not done environmental stewardship before now, that’s why people think the whole thing is tough and punitive. But it’s happening.’

The main point of the Community Recycling Network is to get away from the kind of shoddy recycling practice I saw at work in Harrow. ‘There’s too much contamination,’ Andy said, ‘as there would be because the methods are way too coarse and are propelled by the profit instincts of the waste companies. We are talking about much finer kinds of separation: not just paper in one bin, but different kinds of paper and no comingling of different materials.’

‘But the main thing,’ said Mal, ‘is you must put value on these things as a resource. And you’ve got to give the people a shove. You’ve got to give them the stuff to do it with.’

‘That’s us,’ said Andy. ‘Most of our people do kerbside collections, and we have composters, furniture collectors. Some of them are motivated by the environment and some are motivated by social concerns and for others it’s just something really, really personal.’

‘Like what?’

‘Well, value systems. Empowering people in life. Your waste stream is really the most visible way that you impact on the world. You can see the stuff in the waste bin and you know what you’re generating. The thing that makes me angry is the way waste companies have been able to con local authorities – the con-ability of local authorities itself angers me. At the moment we’re trying to achieve a better system: not just minimising the waste stream but realising value from it. Do you see the difference? The government’s problem is that its attitude is too much ‘end of pipe’; it waits until the rubbish is there before it thinks of what it’s going to do with it. The real task is to design society so that you’re not stuck with rubbish.’

Into the night, the group talked about the transformation of personal values in Britain and the state-sponsored murder of old habits and stuffed bins. Unlike the Freegans, they didn’t look to God for guidance in the wasteland, but to Europe, where a great many communities already view past mindlessness with a sort of bafflement. The men at the table had mortgages and they believed in eco-business: they foresee a future in which the profit motive will transform rubbish into dollars, which they assume is the only way the world will listen. In the end, it may be that the Freegans go the same way as the incinerators, made redundant by the smart redeploying instincts of big business, those forces that once kept each of them burning through the dark.

You know where it all ends. But how very slowly the sense of an ending is transmogrifying into a new beginning. I was reminded of the distance to go the first time I spoke to the public relations representative at the Edmonton Incinerator, or, as they prefer, the London Waste EcoPark Recycling and Energy Centre. Edmonton is responding to some of the realities I’ve been trying to describe – they speak of treating rubbish as a resource – but still they feel tarred with the old brush. And it would be hard not to feel that way: the plant is burning household rubbish at an absolutely colossal rate and the world doesn’t like it.

‘I’m just having trouble working out what it is you would like to do,’ said Wendy Lord, head of corporate communications.

‘I want to see what you do at Edmonton.’

‘But we’re quite an old facility. I could arrange for you to visit one of the newer ones.’

‘I’d prefer to come to Edmonton,’ I said. ‘Just to see how you’re coping with some of the new demands.’

‘I don’t know, Andrew. Whatever.’

‘If you need to know more about me, that’s fine,’ I said.

‘And how would I do that, Andrew?’

I don’t know if they say so at public relations school, but extreme reluctance can be understood as a form of aggression. (As can over-deployment of one’s name.) It can also signal a feeling of paranoia or shame, but none of that was in evidence when eventually I met Wendy Lord. She came striding up to me in the reception area at Edmonton wearing knee-high boots and a frighteningly professional smile, part tolerance, part indulgence. I felt that Wendy might have trained herself to spot an eco-nutter at 500 yards, but she seemed to give me the benefit of the doubt and led me up the stairs where I was invited to sit and watch a video. The fact that she starred in the video did not contribute largely to my sense of ease, but in no time I was learning about London Waste’s flagship efforts to clean up and renew. The PR job was happening on an industrial scale, but that notwithstanding, many people believe incinerators are merely landfill sites in the sky. ‘The problem has not been with organic waste,’ Murray writes, ‘but with materials which give off toxic emissions when burned.’ Early tracking ‘of dioxins and furans identified incinerators as the prime source and even in the mid-1990s, when other sources were uncovered, municipal incinerators still accounted for over a third of all estimated emissions’.

The Edmonton centre is owned equally by the North London Waste Authority and the private waste management company SITA UK. Far from admitting to being a blight, Edmonton sees itself as a model of regulation, boasting that ‘the official fireworks display on Millennium Night was equivalent to over a century of dioxin emissions from our plant.’ In 1996, the plant invested £15 million in gas cleaning equipment that it claims has contributed towards the reduction of emissions to the point where they are ‘negligible’ and ‘insignificant’. When Wendy Lord came back to find me scribbling, she started to speak like something of an eco-warrior herself. ‘Nimbyism is rife in the UK,’ she said. ‘And we need more joined-up thinking. In Japan, they’ll think about waste management before they build the town. We follow a holistic approach, where electricity is produced from residual waste, and it all requires a new way of thinking. The organic waste produced by a town can be used to “green” that town.’

If we hadn’t been sitting to the side of a monstrous furnace that day, I would have sworn Wendy Lord was one of the new evangelists. ‘It’s about the three Rs,’ she said: ‘reduce waste, reuse as much as you can, and recover value from what’s left.’ She counted them out on her fingers. ‘It’s a choice you – Andrew – make,’ she added. ‘Be informed. Think. No one wants to talk about rubbish. It’s not sexy. We’re interested in shiny. You know, I have nothing in my attic but a Christmas tree. And the profile of waste management is now being raised.’

Or erased. It cannot have escaped Lord’s notice that the company she represents so effectively will be put out of business when Zero Waste becomes a reality. That is the irony that lies dormant inside the volcano: Edmonton talks eco-friendly – and is, indeed, as eco-friendly as an incinerator could be – but it remains a factory for the mass immolation of rubbish and that concept is antithetical to progressive thinking in the waste management sphere. The logical end to Lord’s words is in fact the closure of her own firm, as human virtue would have rendered it obsolete, though there might always be a greatly downsized role for the plant in burning clinical waste. As she spoke of the electricity that is produced by the furnaces at Edmonton, it occurred to me that perhaps the future use of incinerators would be to burn other incinerators, keeping a few lights running to lead us out of the dark.

We walked through the building, stopping on a concrete platform like the bridge of a giant destroyer (In Which We Serve, with me as Noel Coward) to watch the procession of bin lorries that swept into the bays to drop off their rubbish. Outside, I could see two huge ash-heaps, the latest cinders of the 24-hour fires, and beyond them the high flats of Enfield, and I wondered whether an examination of the breast-milk of the mothers who lived there might not settle a silent argument between Wendy and the world. But that’s not fair: Wendy was being reasonable and professional, and much of what she said expressed a truth about London Waste’s progress. The heat rose as we climbed the stairs. It rose with a notion of tension, and the scale of the fires below began to occupy my mind. The whole place seemed to thrum, as if we were standing on a great and natural instability, a faultline, a volcano, whose threatening energy was powering an industrial process.

At this point we entered an immense hangar that looked like a missile silo out of James Bond; it looked Soviet and outmoded, it looked built for massive destruction, capable of unleashing violence and deadly force on an old-fashioned scale. The air smelled sulphurous and I looked down into a number of unspeakably deep concrete canyons, with grabbing equipment hanging above them and the litter of our lives heaped at the bottom. The grabbers were truly huge; each one looked as if it could easily lift a house and a family and all their desires and all their trash too and drop the lot into the flames. ‘The rubbish comes down to nothing with burning,’ said Wendy. ‘It’s magical.’ The grabber puts 15 tons of refuse an hour into the boilers. The colossus seemed hungry for black bags and boxes. It roared and I almost toppled into the yawning canyon when thinking of the countless miles of rubbish that had passed through there since 1969. All burned. Living somewhere still. Gone but not gone. A single plastic bag fell from the edge of the canyon, and glided down, all the way down. It felt very primitive, with the smell of burning trash and the grind of titanic engines a suddenly vertigo-inducing denouement to the mad logic of commodification.

We went behind the boilers and looked at the complicated system by which the rubbish is burned, and the even more complicated system by which the resulting gases are cleaned and made to produce electricity. It would be too boring to describe, but it works. I stood behind the bank of screens in the control room and watched through thick glass as the fires were filmed by a camera. The fire is 850ºC. A large screen shows the chemical make-up of the burning rubbish – substances can be added to the boiler to counterbalance some of the toxins. The electricity-creation is all basic physics, but as the control room manager explained it to me my face took on the look it used to have when I was doing physics at school, and I imagined there were bigger things going on in the world. I was still dizzy from the death-in-life experience of the canyons next door, and feeling too that I had visited a scene that one day will have joined the blacking factory in our memories. ‘Local people just think the dustcart throws the rubbish in and it’s burned,’ said one of the workers in the control room. ‘But it’s much more complicated than that. People see the chimney and they panic.’

I turned on the kitchen light at home and examined the rubbish lying on the newspapers. Perhaps Bataille is right and a loss of disposability will mean a loss of sovereignty, but it didn’t feel like it as I picked through the things and remembered the fire. The bulb in the light overhead might have an afterlife and so might the fridge that hummed in the quiet of the small hours. The tiles under my feet might stock the foundation of a new road one day; the kettle and the clock would never die. After putting the stuff back inside the bag and closing the lid I went online to see about organ and tissue donation.

[1] Rubbish! (Eden Project Books, 414 pp., £7.99, June 2005, 978 1 903 91944 6).

[2] According to BBC news reports, some boroughs are now set to employ ‘recycling police’, whose job will be to capture and fine people who contaminate bins or fly-tip.

[3] For this and other reports, see the Defra website: www.defra.gov.uk.