Oslo residents Elisabet Helsing & Graham Dukes have a rubbish day out
You remember the dear old dustbin? Back in the forties all our good parents had one, just out of sight beyond the kitchen window. It was mostly filled with the greyish powder left after a good blaze in the kitchen grate, but anything else could find a place in it. Every Friday, beefy men would empty the stuff into a cart and take it away. Whither, one did not care to ask. One simply paid the rates and the Council did the rest. Life was simple.
No longer. Seventy years on, we are all supposed to get actively and creatively involved in the refuse business. Splendid –but need it be quite so complicated? Our City’s Mayor has just launched a grand recycling scheme, set out in a glossy (but hopefully recyclable) brochure. For starts, as he explains, each household must procure six large canisters with well-fitting lids, label them distinctively, and allocate each a place in the kitchen. One must cater for plastic, another for paper and cardboard, and others for glass, metal, food remnants, and something called Miscellaneous Refuse.
Happily we have a roomy kitchen in which we can house all six without tripping over them all too often. Our friend Cecil is less fortunate; in his two-room flat the kitchen is barely larger than a telephone box. No matter, the brochure assures him: “If need be, some canisters can be placed in another room.” For Cecil, that can only mean the living room, the bedroom or the bathroom. Not that the rules end there; on page 4, the brochure lists some of the unpleasant things that must never be cast into the canister for Miscellaneous Refuse – dead cats, for example. Please to remember that, Cecil, should Felix ever pass away.
Page 5 stresses that our refuse must be clean; a contradiction in terms, maybe, but our neighbour Elena insists that we are supposed to remove all the goo and the mould, as she does herself. Page 6 explains that we must never fill the canisters directly; for a fee, the Council will treat us to plastic bags of various colours, which must be filled with refuse and then sealed and placed in the corresponding canisters. Wait: plastic bags? Wasn’t one purpose of this exercise to have less plastic going the rounds and not more? Then there is page 7, specifying some seventy items of “dangerous refuse”, all demanding separate disposal; to clarify the latter there is a picture of some brave fellow striding off to the recycling station with a lead accumulator tucked cosily under his arm. (Query: Has the Mayor himself ever tried carrying a lead accumulator that way?). The list of unspeakables extends to residual turpentine, mouse poison and nail polish remover. But why is His Worship equally concerned about musical birthday cards and shoes with illuminated soles? Because these seemingly playful things, it seems, are subtly powered by evil miniscule batteries, all waiting to explode horrifically given half a chance. Surely then, when these objects arrive at the recycling station, white-coated municipal servants with nimble fingers will be to hand, ready to dismember them and render them innocuous?
Growing curious, we resolved last week to take a look at the recycling station. We loaded up the estate car with Things We Could Well Do Without, ranging from an Edwardian Trouser Press to a hotel-sized fish tureen, and with them we drove out to the place. It was Saturday morning, and a long line of cars was queued up, each waiting its turn to enter. But not just that: a lively barter market proved to be in progress in the street; one man’s poison was clearly another man’s meat; every individual was peering enviously into all the nearby cars. Instinctively we joined in. Within minutes our Trouser Press was bartered for a large laboratory flask (might make a passable table lamp) and the fish tureen for an almost functional exercise bike. Before we got anywhere close to the entrance gate all our disposables had been disposed of and the car was filled with Things That Might Come In Useful One Day. There was no point in going any further, so we turned around and drove home.
Meeting Cecil, who had biked out to the recycling station in the morning to take a look, we asked if he had seen any nimble fingers. He hadn’t; the place was manned largely by cheerful, swarthy red-faced figures made in the very image of Alfred Doolittle, loudly encouraging all comers to cast their wares into vast steel containers, with throaty cries of “Heave!” and “Ho there!” And, somewhere in the background. Cecil had observed a row of monstrous yellow-painted machines with crane-like arms, all emitting great greedy gobbling noises as they grabbed refuse from one row of containers, pounded it into great bales and then cast it into the next row, no doubt to serve some purpose.
Disillusioned, we have returned to our six canisters, intent on learning to fill them dutifully. But will someone please tell us how to classify this packaging stuff that looks like plastic on the one side but metal on the other? And, just for the record, if any reader of these lines happens to have a lampshade that would fit our flask, or longs for an exercise bike that almost works, may we please hear about it?