Proper Gander: ‘I Love The Smell Of Rubbish In The Morning’

There’s a lot of trash on the telly, especially if you tune in to BBC2’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Wastemen. This lifts the wheelie-bin lid on how we deal with the rubbish we chuck out and then forget. Every hour, Britain produces enough refuse to fill the Albert Hall, which someone has to deal with. Wastemen follows the various scrap merchants, bin men, wardens and waste processing plant staff who handle what the people of Newcastle throw away.

1,200 tons of rubbish arrive each week at the Byker Waste Processing Plant, where it gets sorted by hand, by magnets and by sieves, and then composted, recycled, or turned into fuel to produce electricity. Oddly, there isn’t a local market for this fuel, so it gets exported to Sweden, which can’t produce enough rubbish for its own waste-to-electricity power plants. The cameras also follow the official and unofficial scrap dealers who try to make a living from what others leave behind.

The programme reminds us that even waste can be a commodity, like anything else that gets bought and sold. Waste has more value if it’s reused, but recycling facilities vary according to levels of investment across the country. Not many waste processing plants are set up to recycle as much as the one in Byker. And these days, councils are likely to be cutting funding for recycling rather than increasing it. If services aren’t there for people to use, then more rubbish will get illegally dumped. Newcastle council tackles this with its neighbourhood wardens and the snappily-monikered ‘Enviro-crime’ team. They try to identify flytippers from CCTV footage of tyres and furniture being hoyed out of vans, and by snooping through bin bags for something showing an incriminating address.

So, the way we manage our rubbish is shaped by market forces and dictates from the state. We’ve got the technology to reuse and recycle much of what we throw away, but its use isn’t encouraged enough by our current system. Before we can find more sensible and practical approaches to using our resources, capitalism itself needs to get thrown on the scrapheap.


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