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The bins that tidy

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default The bins that tidy

Post by Adrian on 25th September 2010, 9:51 pm

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The fury such receptacles provoke is a measure of a society unable to confront the scale of its own waste


In Britain you can win a political argument by mentioning overflowing bins. Make the case as carefully as you like about the importance of strong unions, the pay and conditions of bin workers, debunk the myths of the winter of discontent – but the footage of mountainous binbags in Leicester Square, 1979, will still be the clincher. A society confronted with its own waste: is there anything more apocalyptic?

No doubt this trauma runs beneath the recent spate of stories in the rightwing press about the horrors of waste disposal. (Strangely, the triumphant outcome of the Leeds bin workers' strike against privatisation and paycuts was less well publicised.) Wheelie bins and recycling seem to agitate people like nothing else. The first are urban objects that can't be In Keeping; the second implies, unforgivably, that waste doesn't just disappear. One story entailed a woman threatening to sue Torbay Council for reducing the value of property by lining the street with green wheelie bins. It's all symptomatic of what Milan Kundera once defined as "the refusal to admit that shit exists" – particularly acute in a country that has all but abolished public toilets.

Before recycling, waste could in some cases be fairly straightforwardly vaporised – many council flats after 1945 had Garchey chutes, before councils found them too expensive to maintain. Refuse collection is still a problem for local authorities – the flats where I live recently had their wheelie bins taken away, for being on a public right of way; local foxes now dine out here. Houses should be easier were it not for an economy propped up almost entirely by the obsession with property. It would be instructive to ascertain how many of those complaining about unsightly bins and irregular rubbish collection also want to pay less council tax, or admire the everything-outsourced "virtual council" being floated in Suffolk. Or do these things happen by magic?

There are possible solutions, however. In Prince Charles's model village of Poundbury, rubbish is obliterated as much as possible. There are certainly no unsightly wheelie bins – or any street bins at all – and the streets are so narrow that, according to some accounts, residents have to lug their rubbish outside the development. As one wag put it, maybe when locals "tire of it, hopefully they'll start lobbing rubbish into the street from upper storeys – which HRH will love. Truly Augustan!"

But is redesigning waste disposal such a bad idea? There are many ways of redecorating – a city's well-heeled areas often have brightly painted bins, as if to declare: "We recycle, you know." Across the road from me someone has, patriotically or satirically, painted their bin with the flag of St George. In fact, wheelie bins are the sort of problem groups like the Civic Trust were set up to deal with – an omnipresent and (whatever some think) essential piece of street furniture that designers seldom seem to think about, a part of the landscape accepted blankly or with furious resentment. Perhaps it should be properly designed to be in keeping; minimalist in east London's gentrified modernist estates, ornate and neo-Georgian in Bath.

Yet the real reason why bins, especially recycling bins, offend so much is that they are a constant reminder of the quantity of rubbish we produce. And some of the best political thought and writing today is based on glorying in this abundance of reject matter. In Ellis Sharp's astonishing novel The Dump, an entire society is embodied in an enormous pile of waste; Rejectamentalist Manifesto, the website of his fellow novelist China Miéville, uses detritus as a form of political critique; while the American writer Evan Calder Williams has called for a "Salvagepunk" of reassembled trash. Here, reactivated rubbish has become a return of the repressed.

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Adrian
Founder and crotchety old git who wanders around in a threadbare dressing gown muttering

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