Church attendances may be falling, but there’s a new religion in town: recycling. Its followers are devout and full of missionary zeal. They follow the collection day rubrics to the letter and if you ask them what evidence they have that sorting their polyethylenes from their PVCs is any more effective than lighting a penny candle, they say: ‘But I believe.’
The road to a greener future seems paved with rinsed yoghurt pots that no one knows what to do with and I grow weary of being guilted, particularly by people who only recently learned to tie their own shoelaces. A couple of months ago I ran the gauntlet of a junior school ‘save our planet’ demo. I’d have liked to stop and talk to them about my alleged role in destroying the oceans, but I haven’t been vetted by the government so I thought it best not to linger.
Agreed, I have not led an environmentally blameless life. I’ve bought my potatoes shrink-wrapped and not asked myself why. I’ve tossed an empty water bottle into a bin without considering its onward journey. In mitigation, I haven’t contributed to a Pampers mountain because my babies wore terry cotton diapers, which I washed in the sink and dried on a rope washing line. And it wasn’t my generation that littered the world with plastic ready-meal containers because when we were raising our families such things were the stuff of a tired mother’s fantasies.
In the Beginning was the compost heap and the ragbag. Food waste ended up in the compo bucket or the dog. Worn-out clothes were mended or turned into dusters or patchwork quilts, depending on your skill set. To quote the late, lamented Victoria Wood, you wore pants for 20 years, then you cut them down for pan scrubs. That was recycling.
The word itself has now become meaningless. If one of the junior royals wears an Alexander McQueen dress they’ve been seen in before, it’s described as recycling, as though they rescued it from a dumpster on a Kensington street.
There’s a thing called displacement activity. Animals do it when they sense a dangerous situation and feel conflicted — to run away or stand and fight? Displacement activity is something that has no utility or relevance to dealing with an imminent crisis. Humans do it too. Head-scratching, nail-chewing, moving Styrofoam packaging blocks from one bin to the other and back.
I’m not the first to utter the heretical thought that we’ve been sold a bill of goods over recycling our household garbage. It once seemed like a very worthwhile activity, requiring little effort and repaying us with a cleaner planet and a sense of virtuous satisfaction.
Gradually the truth is dawning. Recycling is mainly a displacement activity. And if, for instance, our great-grandchildren are to have any prospect of gamboling on clean beaches, we need to give up the recycling delusion and go cold turkey. We need to stop using plastic, and that’s a tougher ask.
I’m only in my seventies but my childhood was largely plastic-free. Plastics were the coming thing, as witnessed by the career advice given to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, but the word ‘re-cycle’ wasn’t in our lexicon. It didn’t need to be. Those were the dying days of the redeemable bottle deposit.
Returnable pop bottles were our source of income during the school holidays and sometimes the occasion of criminal enterprise, because if a shopkeeper wasn’t vigilant, the empties he’d just paid cash for could be nicked from the yard behind his shop and re-redeemed. Not that I ever did that.
The difference between recycling and re-using is a crucial one. The Church of Recycling may not have the answers, but it can make us stop and think. Where, after I have carefully segregated and binned the plastic clamshell those strawberries came in, will it go? What will become of it? Probably not much, is the depressing answer.
So what is the alternative? To face what we have wrought or flee? Well, some of us will be fleeing soon enough, but as long as we’re still here we can at least get a few facts straight with the junior environment police. Recycling plastic doesn’t really work. Living without it is our only hope.
We who once lived with glass milk bottles and string shopping bags can revert to that way of life. Just watch us.