We dare not let our future look like this

London’s rate of recycling is the worst among Europe’s major cities. Without change, the sheer volume of trash threatens to engulf us all

Published in the Evening Standard 22 July 2006

I don?t suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder in any area of my life ? except one. I do not ensure my Coke cans are all in a straight line, like David Beckham. I do not wash my hands repeatedly, as, we?re told, is the habit of Steven Gerrard.

But I am a fanatic when it comes to recycling. If I spot so much as a crumpled envelope or a faded receipt, I?ll march it straight to the green bin. I?ll flatten orange juice cartons and egg boxes, anything which has even the remotest relationship to paper. Tins and glass get the same treatment, rinsed and dumped in the green box. My zealotry is such that if I see a crushed can on our street, I don?t just curse the litter louts who left it ? I find my right hand twitching, desperate to pick up the debris and hurl it towards its proper, green home.

Why am I like this? It can?t be a Bree Van De Kamp desire for regimented order: anyone looking at my desk, its entire surface space covered by wobbling piles of paper, knows that?s not me. No, it?s not an anal need for neatness that does it, just a single visual memory. Several years ago I saw a wide, panoramic photograph of a landfill dump ? and the sight horrified me. The idea that we are digging vast, crater-sized holes in the ground and filling them with plastic bags stuffed with rotten, suppurating rubbish was so awful, it seemed a straightforward, moral imperative that we reduce the amount of trash we bury. Carry on as we are, and we will poison the ground beneath our feet.

The alternative is to burn our garbage, but that?s hardly an improvement, filling the atmosphere with smoke and fumes, to say nothing of carbon emissions. Which is why last week?s government decision to go ahead with the Belvedere incineration plant in Bexley was so roundly condemned by green groups.

No, the only solution is not to bury or burn, but to recycle. And on this London?s record is appalling. When it comes to recycling by local authorities, the capital is bottom of the national league table: we recycle just 15% of our waste. Among Europe?s major cities, London is the very worst.

Of course it would help if more of us developed a compulsive behaviour disorder that made us drop every possible item in the green box rather than the black bin bag. But even that doesn?t get to the heart of the matter. That comes down to a single word: plastic.

Plastic is the stubborn item that refuses to be recycled; in my house it?s the plastic ? almost all of it packaging ?

that fills up the bins. Paper, tin and glass are fine; old food scraps can go for compost. But plastic won?t go anywhere.

What to do about it? The obvious solution is to find ways to recycle it. My own borough, Hackney, have now set up bottle banks where you can dump the plastic. But experience shows that won?t have an impact till it?s part of the regular, doorstep service. Asking us to make a special journey is asking for a monastic virtue few of us have.

Instead, we should tackle this problem at source. That?s why the Women?s Institute deserve three loud choruses of Jerusalem for their latest campaign, against supermarket packaging.

You don?t have to be Victor Meldrew to shake your head in disbelief at the amount of plastic, polystyrene and cling film that comes into the house with a single, weekly shop. Why, you say, your voice rising, do four pears need to be packed as if they are were a rare Faberge egg on loan to the Louvre?

The supermarkets would reply that, if they did not coddle their avocados and apples like precious gems, they would get bashed and bruised and we, the consumers, would reject them. And on this, they have a point. If we were more willing to buy fruit and veg with knocks and scars, the shops would not waste so much plastic protecting them.

We need to send that message to the supermarkets. And there are other businesses which need to hear it, too. Why, to take one example, do Starbucks and many of the other coffee chains insist on selling their iced, Frappucino drinks in plastic cups? If paper will do for a hot drink, why not for a cold one? If you want to do your bit for the planet, that could be a small start. Add to the list of specifications ? Grande, skinny, decaff etc ? a request for a paper cup. See if it catches on. (While you?re at it, ask why Pret and other sandwich bars don?t provide green bins for all the cans they generate.)

In the end, though, we probably won?t act until waste hits us in our pockets. Ireland has experimented with a tax on plastic supermarket shopping bags, forcing customers to reuse them. Meanwhile, Sir Michael Lyons, the civil servant reviewing local government funding, has proposed a black bin bag tax, so that homeowners pay more the more sacks of non-recyclable trash they leave out. It happens on the continent already, with Germans paying 18p a kilo, the Belgians 70p per bag.

Inevitably, politics will intrude. Right now, the Mayor is keen to take overall charge of waste management in the city ? collecting it and getting rid of it. Most boroughs are wary, reluctant to let go of one of the few clear powers they have. That leaves the burden of proof on them, to prove they can get their act together and come up with a strategy that will serve the whole city. If they don?t, they will soon face huge EU fines, as London fails to come into line with European standards on recycling.

This is one of those problems that can?t be dumped in one place: it?s up to all of us, politicians, companies and individuals. And it?s not one we can bury, hoping it will just go away.