In the twelve days between 26 December 2019 and 6 January 2020, I went to the tip four times. The tip is what I call it because that's the phrase my mother uses, although the sign by the gate reads "Household Recycling Centre". Once inside, you drive around a horseshoe-shaped road configuration before ending up where you started, on a minor road by a motorway junction. What you choose to shed along the way is your own concern.
In the curved space between the two sides of the horseshoe about a dozen shipping containers are lined up. Some are open on the top and have steps up the side for access, others have the double doors at one end folded back and a crushing apparatus appended, so that anything placed in the gap by the door will be thrust deep into the container and impacted.
There are parking spots marked out but people tend to pull their cars up anyhow, meaning that traffic quickly backs up. On our first visit on Boxing Day, I sat for 10 minutes while I watched a man pull several entire artificial Christmas trees — still decorated — out of a van that was blocking the way. He dragged them one by one over to the "garden waste" bin, mounted the steps and threw them down into the container. I wondered idly if he thought they were real, or if he just couldn't be bothered to find the correct disposal place.
The tip we frequented when I was a child had no separations or categories. Everything was dumped in one communal area and then bulldozed into great mountains of rubbish, eventually destined for landfill. Parts of rusty cars formed layers in between decaying sofas with a sprinkling of disturbing, broken toys sprinkled around. As interesting as the rubbish itself were the people who went there to acquire rather than discard things. I would see them sometimes, dragging perfectly good bits of timber from the morass and loading them onto car roofracks.
I saw and heard some alarming things at the tip this time. I felt like I was witnessing the end of several short stories at once, without being able to turn back the pages and read how they began. There was a woman crying while she slowly piled what looked like an entire flat's worth of furniture into the "wood" container. An elderly couple were having a vicious and personal argument about whether broken deckchairs were "metal" or "fabric". A man clutching a bulging sack politely asked one of the high vis jacketed tip employees which bin he needed for disposing children's teddy bears.
But most people were there for the same reason we were: to slough off the accumulated detritus of the old year. We had empty boxes too big for the wheelie bin to get rid of, as well as old light fittings and other miscellaneous junk that I can't really picture now that it's gone. Sorting it all into the right sections and climbing the teetering steeps to throw it away was quite enjoyable. Driving back out onto the road afterwards I felt a bit intoxicated with the thrill of it all. Never doubt that widespread narratives have power: I felt physically lighter in that "new year, new me" way, just because we had emptied the car boot of some cardboard.
In fact, I liked this feeling so much that I scoured the house for more things to discard and went back to the tip by myself over the next few days. I've never experienced the fabled "runner's high", but this felt like I imagine that does, a brain fizzing combination of accomplishment and virtue.
This was new to me: I lived in London (where junk left on the pavement will disappear within hours) for eight years after I finished university and although we've been on this faraway peninsula for several years now we only got a car recently; until the last few months, the tip was inaccessible to us. When we had a sizeable piece of rubbish to dispose of — an old sofa, say – I sent the council £16 via bank transfer and we left it on the doorstep before going out for the day. It was gone when we got home and the transaction felt magical. I don't know who really took it or where it went, just that my small payment vanished it as thoroughly as any spell.
Perhaps the novelty of the tip wears off. I hope not, though — as well as that addictive sense of a load being lifted upon departure, the people-watching opportunities there are outstanding. The employees giggle almost constantly, watching people filing cardboard in the metal container and wood with plastic and despairing to each other of our collective inability to read clear signage.
And unlike with the disappearing sofa, there is a cathartic sense at the tip that we all have to confront the consequences of our own actions eventually. I bought too many things that came in unwieldy cardboard boxes, and now I have to manhandle them into a giant hopper while it's raining. That woman over there clearly regrets purchasing the toys her children have barely used yet somehow also broken. I don't know what chain of events lead to that man having a sack full of unwanted teddy bears, but I bet he had plenty of time to dwell upon cause and effect while he contemplated whether they should go in "fabric" or "mixed plastics".
The sceptic in me doubts how much "recycling" actually results from this whole process (we should be reducing our waste, I know, rather than indulging in costly ways of disposing of it). But six weeks on from my last trip to the tip, I'm still thinking about it enough to write this and send it to you. It feels like a glimpse of the dark underbelly to the shiny promise of the new year.
Things to read, watch and listen to:
- We all die immediately of a Brazilian butt lift.
- "The screen went blank. Green put his head down on his arms and cried."
- I'll tell you a secret: I refuse to ever update my OS if it will kill iTunes.
- There are two kinds of people in this world: older siblings and everyone else.
- The Difference Between Being Broke and Being Poor.
- You can’t untoast toast.
- 332 words on pain.
- Your Book Might Not Sell, and You Have to Live With That.
There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: I do daily podcast recommendations at The Listener, I write weekly podcast industry reports for Hot Pod, I make a fortnightly podcast called Shedunnit and I’m sometimes on Twitter. My book is out in paperback on 5 March. Pre-order a copy here.