While at the airport in Manchester, I observed a cleaner collecting the rubbish from the bins dotted around the terminal. She wheeled a large cart with a couple of garbage bag-sized compartments and room for her mops, sponges, cleaning products and a bucket. As I watched, I thought about her story and I wondered if she liked her job and whether or not she considered herself invisible in a seemingly invisible occupation.
She reached a bin and took the lid off. It was one of those multi-compartment ones with the individual recycling slots for paper, plastics, cans and glass. I’d stood at one very similar earlier that day, deliberating which compartment my drink container belonged in. I watched as she pulled out the bag holding the paper and topped it up with everything in the plastics bin, repeating this with the cans and then the glass. She tied it off and dumped it- all of it – onto the pile of garbage bags growing in the centre of her trolley and she carried on to the next one, I’m sure, to do exactly the same thing.
Through disbelief, it took me a moment to realise she wasn’t planning to sort through it later. Then, feeling slightly sickened by this reality, I wondered when she stopped caring. Was she worked too hard? Did she have too many bins to clean out and not enough time? Is the whole system designed to merely make us feel better about our waste? Then I think about all the people who stood beside that bin and took care in their choice.
It ignites my scepticism. How many environmental choices are we making under false pretences? Much of our recyclables are sent to China in giant shipping containers for offshore processing, so do my recyclables actually end up recycled? Am I sitting too comfortably in ignorance?
I already feel guilty about how I live in this world. Recycling is all well and good, but I’m aware it would be even better for the environment if there wasn’t a need for it at all. I remember we once believed we could save trees with plastic and now, as we live with the repercussions of that, we revert back to re-useable and biodegradable and paper products.
I adore Christmas, but it’s the season to be plastic. I’ve already confessed I’m throwing out a perished plastic Christmas tree. That’s not to mention the Christmas cards and wrapping and gift tags that come packaged in plastic and cellophane. You buy gadgets, DVDs and chocolate and they’re all shrink-wrapped and boxed with plastic moulded inserts. Anything unpackaged you protect with bubble-wrap. At the end of festivities, you toss the paper and the bottles and the cardboard boxes in the recycle bin and you wonder again if it will actually be recycled.
Australia is trying to cut back on plastic bags. There have been signs around for months preparing us for this shift to NO PLASTIC BAGS. People have complained on the news that they’ll now have to buy bin liners so ‘what’s the point?’. I felt quite positive about it, until on day one of the restrictions I trotted to the checkout, bags under arm, and discovered you could buy plastic bags – extra thick and ‘re-useable’. Several other shops, when I’ve commented on their plastic bags informed me that their bags meet the new regulations. So ‘NO PLASTIC BAGS’ actually means thicker re-useable plastic bags, and essentially more plastic.
I don’t believe we should call that ‘progress’.