TERRY PRONE: I’ve bottled up my anger, but recycling is an ugly business

If driving to work tomorrow after the bank holiday, you happen to pass a bottle bank, the chances are that you will avert your gaze. writes Terry Prone

Bottle banks always look, after even an ordinary weekend, as if they’ve been the site of a weird war involving bottles, cartons, and plastic bags, all scattered around the ugliest metal containers ever designed. Those containers, brown and green and raucous pink structures, have a stylistic relationship to Sherman tanks. They are effectively abandoned in public parking areas and shopping centre car parks, and they are a blot on the landscape.

Every time I visit one of them, I come away with my teeth ground down to little nubs. First of all, because here’s a collection of devices meant to evoke and inculcate good environmental practice, yet they have been designed and placed in a way that is so challengingly repellent that it’s a wonder anybody ever uses them.

I suspect the demographic that does use them, in the main, is middle-aged women, who, once upon a time, read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and who were converted for life into small-scale environmentalists. That demographic would, of course, be periodically boosted by the lads who, having partied, depose enough beer bottles to create their own brown mountains, but don’t bother to put them in the brown-glass section.

Why don’t our local authorities insist that the charities that apparently benefit from our glass and cans put a few shrubs around these areas, and redesign the Shermans so that they don’t put their users in a mood to torpedo something?

Why is it not possible to put a general garbage container in the assembly, so that people who end up with syrupy-wet bags that once contained open drink cans don’t end up stuffing them between two of the Shermans? And why does the pink clothing container have a notice saying it takes shoes only in twos?

That last one rivets me every time. I never read any instructions, which is why my tall friend puts all my Ikea together, but, for some reason, I always read the instructions on recycling containers. They don’t want duvets, which makes sense, because getting a duvet through that funnel would take forever and obviate anything else going in. But they also want only pairs of shoes. Talk about picky. It makes me laugh every time, because it cannot be policed and may provoke owners of individual shoes to put them in just for spite. It’s puzzling, though, in its implication that, out in suburbia, there are hundreds of would-be donors who have only one of a pair of shoes. Now, I have little tracker yokes on my keys, my IPad, my phone, and on a dozen other items in the house which frequently nip off on their own for spite, but it would never have occurred to me to stick a tracker on a shoe. They don’t tend to wander — singly — without me in them. But maybe we have donors who can’t be bothered to sort their discards and who annoy the charities by sticking single shoes in their Shermans.

Sorting rubbish used to be the task of the poor, and it still is in some developing countries. It was the poor who scavenged dumps to find re-usable materials. It was poor women, in the main, who, for centuries, sorted discarded rags to pick the ones that could be incorporated into the manufacture of paper.

I’ve bottled up my anger, but recycling is an ugly business

This century is the first in which the well-off earnestly sort rubbish for composting, for the brown bin, the green bin, and the black bin. Like all tasks for which training is not given, this is not adequately performed; some of the glass-accepting Shermans are a complete waste, because people fire green material or Pyrex into a clear-glass receptor.

But we try. That’s the point, isn’t it? We believe that, in some way, we are helping to improve the world, so we try, us laypeople. Us civilians.

We public-spirited laypeople were the ones who brought you Fairtrade coffee, too, out of our concern for exploited coffee bean farmers overseas. Right? Wrong, as it turns out. Rather the reverse, in fact.

When it comes to Fairtrade as a concept, the consumer was the last to know or care. Corporations led the way on this issue. Businesses, like Tate & Lyle, the huge sugar refiner, stepped out in front. Tate & Lyle invented the sugar cube, which, no doubt, improved some lives, somewhere, including those of horses fed the sugar in edible chunks, when a spoonful might have been an equine challenge. For several centuries, the sugar industry had been the target of protesters who pointed out that the farm-to-fork, or, in this case, farm-to-teaspoon, story of refined sugar is one of sweetened genocide and slavery.

That was long before the development of the school of thought that holds sugar responsible for rotten teeth and obesity. Where the Tate & Lyle decision to go Fairtrade fits in all of this is unclear, but ten years ago they announced that all of their product would now carry that label.

The following year, Cadbury’s put the Fairtrade logo on their Dairy Milk chocolate, turning its eaters, willy-nilly, into ethical consumers, whether or no they wished to own that status.

That logo now occupies a place on thousands of products, although just how much the consumers of those products care has not been established.

Because this is a holiday weekend and all dietary rules are accordingly flung to the wind, I bought myself a packet of Nestle Munchies on Saturday and noticed, alongside its guidelines as to calorific and other content, an information strip I hadn’t seen before. “Cocoa Plan,” it said. “Supporting farmers for better chocolate.” Cocoa Plan? Not Fairtrade?

Next surprise was the report that Sainsbury’s, the British supermarket chain, has, after twenty years, abandoned Fairtrade labelling on tea and replaced it with its own “ethical” branding.

Several major charities, including Oxfam, infuriated by this move, say that it will pull the rug out from under a quarter century of progress towards fairer treatment of developing world farmers. Sainsbury’s say that, on the contrary, the Fairtrade approach is two decades out of date, not least in failing to address the impact on those farmers of climate change.

It turns out that Cadbury’s quietly snuck out from under the Fairtrade banner last year. They had been under it less than half as long as Sainsbury’s, but they now prefer their own scheme, called ‘Cocoa Life,’ and claim the same concerns as Sainsbury’s regarding climate change.

No public protest ensued, and it’s fair to assume no major public protests will happen outside the supermarket chain, probably because of the way the Fairtrade scheme was introduced in the first place. Humans not involved. Just large organisations talking to each other and wishing ethical behaviour on the uninvolved.

It seems to be a case study in how not to do it.

Recycling bins are... so challengingly repellent that it’s a wonder anybody ever uses them


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