What goes through people’s’ minds when they dump rubbish on the street? Where do they think it goes? Do they operate under some child-like belief that pixies and elves come and fetch it in the night and place it in designated refuse areas, or do they simply not think about it at all? I would hazard a guess that it is most likely the latter, although I must confess this sits very ill with me. The idea that people simply don’t think is far too baffling, far too pernicious for me to even entertain. And yet, the is evidence of such lacking is all around us.
There is unlikely to be anything in this world (that I have experienced up until this point in my life, at any rate) that grates on me more than blatant littering. Watching it in action makes me go mad. Sometimes I will say something. Other times, it takes every fibre of my being to restrain the bile that desperately wants to spew forth from my mouth, usually because an underlying logic tells me I am likely to get my head kicked in if I utter any protestation. One learns when to pick their battles, I suppose. For example, upon witnessing a middle-aged man leave a water bottle on a parking metre in the West End, I haughtily told him ‘that didn’t look like a bin to me.’ He looked puzzled for a moment as if awaiting further instruction, so I suggested he take his litter with him until he found an appropriate receptacle and proceeded to watch him until he did so. Conversely, outside my local off-licence the other day, a teenage boy discarded a takeaway box full of chicken bones on the ground, less than a foot away from an actual bin. As much as I wanted to grab him by the back of the neck and rub his face in the mess he’d left, much like disciplining a kitten after it shits on the bed, I calculated that the risk to me was probably disproportionate to the offense. Although frankly I’m not convinced – it was pretty fucking offensive to witness. Shame on my cowardliness.
When I first moved to London, many moons ago, I slept on the floor of my friend’s friend’s council flat in Camberwell. As we were on the ground floor, we had free reign of the back garden – a lovely prospect in theory. Unfortunately, the family in the flat above us were clearly unfamiliar with the concept of modern household refuse systems and elected instead for the more medieval method of hurling things out the window. The result was a terrifically adorned tree in the back garden which never ceased to intrigue me as I sat outside, sipping my morning coffee. Some days it was just plastic shopping bags that decorated its branches, other days it was more colourful and included such treasures as nappies, tissues and empty food cans. We’d had words with them about the matter, but nothing ever changed. In the end, it became a running joke amongst those of us in our flat – the fact was it was simply too depressing, too despicable, too disgusting to look at any other way but humorously.
My intolerance reached a pinnacle the other day though. After a relatively short but pungent trip on the tram from Mitcham Junction to Ampere Way, bound for the realm of the two towers that is Ikea Croydon, I was met with a wall of stench once alighting at the tram stop. It is no exaggeration when I say the smell was a vicious strain of fermented bin liquid and excrement, possibly human. At first I thought perhaps the informal hedgerows of overgrown privet that exist between the highway and the Ikea parking lot had been fertilised. But as I got closer it became clear that that soil had in no way been treated by green-thumbed professionals. No, the odour was more likely attributable to the piles of festering rubbish that comprised the undergrowth. It was absolutely feral.
Part of me wanted to burst into tears in despair, another part of me wanted to punch the closest passerby in the face (innocent though they may seem, probability would have it that they had littered at some point), while yet another part of me considered marching over to B&Q to purchase a roll of bin liners and a pair of hardy gloves and start my own one woman vigilante clean-up brigade (it wouldn’t be the first time).
As I had my toddler in tow, I decided to postpone the campaign and pressed on toward the hellish, rotating mouth of Ikea in search of cheap picture frames and bulk pack serviettes. After a largely successful (though not without the inevitable nausea brought on my the smell of chipboard and meatballs) expedition, I was once again in the parking lot, where I noticed a young boy playing with a fistful of Ikea ordering papers (you know, the complimentary ones they have all over the store alongside the little pencils). He must have had at least fifty of the things and was throwing them up into the air and watching the wind catch and drag them across the bitumen. As the carpark became increasingly strewn with white papers, I watched the boy jump and down, proudly exclaiming “I did it, Mum, I did it” while his mother sat on a bench, apathetically smoking her cigarette. As I drew closer, I kept thinking should I say something? I started reciting things in my head and then kept thinking of the repercussions. Would she be embarrassed by my drawing attention to her complacency, or would she become defensive and attack me with her terrifying acrylic nails? By the time this neurotic overture had played out in my head, I had already passed her, resigning myself instead to the lily-livered tactic of looking back at her and shaking my head in disapproval. She certainly saw me, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought my pompous act had any moral impact on her whatsoever. Carrying on toward the tram stop, the anger bubbled in my stomach; anger at myself for being such a weakling and anger at everyone else for being such animals.
So what’s the solution to this ever mounting cesspit of rubbish and human indifference? Should I try not to let it bother me so much? Should I take my MP to task? Should I start an action group?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my youth in Australia and the rigorous TV campaigns of Clean Up Australia in the 80s and 90s which had me grabbing my bin bag and picking up rubbish in my local area. Perhaps I’m being a tad misty-eyed about it but I remember it being a pretty powerful vehicle for change, perhaps not immediately but certainly over time. People discarded their styrofoam McDonald’s wrappers on the street with impunity when I was a child, but by the time I reached teenhood, there was little chance of someone doing so without fear of public reprisal. Individuals became increasingly emboldened to voice their disapproval when witnessing such offenses, my mother, much to my embarrassment at the time, often being on of them. Maybe I could be the next Ian Kiernan instead of just another stroppy, finger-wagging busybody. Surely after witnessing the utter grotesqueness of the Kingston ‘fatberg’ in yesterday’s Guardian, people might be more amenable to discussions of effective waste management.