How was Christmas for you? Rubbish

By Libby Purves (THE TIMES, 27/12/06):

On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me . . . three bin-liners, two packing cases and the bubblewrap from the plastic Christmas tree.

Oh, yes. Rubbish. Admit it: you are surrounded by it. So am I. Wrapping paper and styrofoam and an extraordinary amount of cardboard and “expanded polystyrene loose fill” from this year’s internet shopping. And in all of us, a small voice behind the festive bonhomie: we cannot keep doing this.

Actually I left it all behind yesterday morning and made my way into the office, through streets lined with discarded toys chucked out the front of the house: last year’s gifts, no longer required. We all know that children have too many toys these days, adults and teenagers an excess of disposable electronic equipment, out of date within a year. The charity shop has become the rubbish tip of the middle classes.

Do you want to know the figures? As many as six million Christmas trees will be burnt or dumped in landfill this year — enough to stretch from London to the North Pole and back again — along with a billion Christmas cards and 83 square kilometres (50,000 trees) of wrapping paper. Over the next week we will chuck out 125,000 tons of plastic packaging, 3,000 tons of turkey foil wrap and 24 million glass jars.

The Department for Environment says households will generate more than three million tons of rubbish over Christmas. Four out of ten toys received on Monday will be broken within three months. We spend 50 weeks of the year vaguely worrying about our consumption, then two weeks in a banquet of rubbish, dreaming of a white Christmas while we burn our twinkly-twinkly lights twenty-four hours a day in the warmest year since records began.

I know, I know; bah humbug.

I’ve been looking through the “how to have a green Christmas” advice and there’s very little we can do about this year now. Tesco and WH Smith have teamed up with the Woodland Trust to recycle Christmas cards; just drop them in the shops in January. Save your wrapping paper for re-use next year . . . but it’s all screwed up in balls now, isn’t it? Next year, I read the suggestion, you could give your presents in painted, re-usable shoe boxes, but that means buying a lot of shoes this year.

One thing you don’t have to worry about is the fir tree, as long as you, er, compost it and don’t chuck it into landfill; each one removes tonnes of carbon dioxide in the nine years it takes to mature, and is replaced as soon as it is cut down. I’m a bit sceptical about that good news message because it comes from an organisation called the Christmas Tree Growers Association. On the other hand the alternative seems to be growing your own, digging it up roots and all and replanting it each year . . . not so handy in a flat.

Frankly that’s about it from all the festive articles I have dredged up. Tree baubles are nonbiodegradable, wrapping paper is chemically treated to colour it, of course you shouldn’t have driven to your mum’s but there are no trains . . . visit your loved ones via the internet instead, one “green Christmas” guide suggested. Oh dear.

There is nothing for it. Very few of us are sufficiently selfless to do the right thing until it hurts not to. And that means paying for rubbish. Local authorities know it. Ministers know it. And we know it, really.

There will have to be a system by which householders’ rubbish is “spied on” with smart chips in our bins, and then their council tax goes up accordingly, or down if they chuck out less. Polluter pays. Only then will we leave packaging at the tills, stop ordering items by post that arrive heavily bubble-wrapped in oversized boxes packed with “loosefill void filler”, or complain about the styrofoam beneath the nectarines. Even recyclable rubbish should be charged for, albeit at a lower rate.

Making the householder pay disposal costs, not at a flat rate but according to the amount of waste, would have an instant effect on packaging. Old fridges? Mobile phones? Defunct electronic toys? Pay to chuck them out. Whistling, walking Postman Pat with his trolley and black-and-white cat? Pay for it once when you buy it, a second time when you throw out the twiddly plastic clips and moulded polystyrene container and the oversized box, then pay a third time when you chuck it out two months later because it no longer whistles and anyway he now wants a singing Bob the Builder in a bulldozer.

Right-wing tabloids are already campaigning against “rubbish taxes” and “Big Brother” bins which use “bin bugs” to “spy” on you. The Mail on Sunday even branded someone the “first recycling martyr” on its front page, because he was fined £200 for putting the wrong trash in a recycling bag. A martyr? To the religion of rubbish and the cause of landfill? Some have even espied the latest example of class war; because “middle-class families are likely to be worst hit because they throw away more non-recyclable waste, such as nappies and food packaging”, as one Daily Mail article had it. In other words (if true) the working classes have been subsidising your casual waste.

The Government is considering the case for a “polluter pays” tax on non-recyclable rubbish, by which you pay each time your bin is emptied, or a microchip weighs the refuse. It could cost the typical family around £200 a year. Happy Christmas.


On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me: twelve minigrip bags, eleven packing cases, ten tonnes of bubblewrap, nine styrofoam boxes, eight polystyrene trays, seven empty bottles, six million trees, five non-biodegradable baubles, four sacks of void filler, three of corrugated paper, a £200 tax bill — and a blister-packaged plastic Christmas tree.