• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

It's in the bag

When you look for ways to reduce household rubbish, the results can surprise you.

What did we do with our rubbish in the days before weekly collections and land- fill sites? I don't seem to remember much rubbish. We lit fires with used paper and kindling made from butter boxes. During the Depression, sugar sacks were used for floor mats and they made ideal raincoats when tucked corner to corner. Oatmeal bags were used to strain curds from whey or to line boys' trousers, which were made from cut-down coats. We cooked vegetable leftovers with mash for the chooks and gave the bones to our dogs. Kerosene tins had many uses, perhaps the best was to collect pipi to cook on the beach over driftwood fires. Our groceries were wrapped in newspaper or put into brown paper bags, then packed into cartons. At Christmas time, our corner grocer added a small box of chocolates. We used the silver wrappings to decorate the Christmas tree. We didn't need to be told how to reuse, reduce and recycle.

Recently, I was part of a pilot scheme to monitor the rubbish I put out for the weekly collection. We were given scales to weigh each item and a detailed form to record our contribution to the landfill. We attended meetings where we were given advice on how to reuse, reduce and recycle. We also shared our ideas and frustrations as we attempted to cut the kilos we popped into the council-supplied plastic bags.

When I totted up my totals at the end of the first month, I was amazed to find that over half the weight of my rubbish came from junk mail. This was easily attended to by sticking a "No advertising material: thank you" on my letterbox.

Next, I turned my attention to the less weighty, but extremely bulky pile of plastic bags. This included 52 of the red variety, which the council "gave" me annually. One of these would last me more than a month. Noticing that they were charged for in the rates and that each bag cost $3.50, it seemed that I would, in my small way, be helping the environment as well as my budget by calling the council and pointing out that all this plastic was surplus to requirements. The rather amazed telephonist at the call centre, after seeking help from someone higher up the chain of command, informed me that there was no possibility that I could receive fewer bags and a refund, but that if I didn't need them all I could donate the bags either to someone who had a surplus of rubbish or to some needy charity.

With that problem neatly sorted out by the helpful council, I decided to cut back on the springy mess of plastic amassed from supermarket shopping. I started my quest with a couple of cardboard boxes that I sometimes remembered as the checkout operator started filling the plastic bags with my weekly needs. When I was more organised, I found that the packing skills of the supermarket staff varied, with those at the lower level putting all the heavy items in the weaker carton that didn't stand up to the strain and would disgorge its contents outside my back door. There's something demoralising about having to ask week after week to have the weight of one's groceries evenly distributed, so I kept an eye open for an answer to my problem.

Eureka! I found it in two strong green canvas bags that cost 50c each. I also solved the problem of the potatoes, milk and pumpkin all going into one bag while the loo paper, tissues, cereal, etc went into the other; which had meant rearranging the contents before I could lift the bags out of the trolley. The solution was a cheerful, rosy-cheeked checkout operator who chatted as she packed and distributed all the items with the skill of a corner-store grocer. There was a minor glitch in that the queue to her bay was often a long one.

Am I ready for an ecology award? Well, not yet. You see, the council requires that all recyclables be placed in transparent supermarket bags and, you've guessed it, I've run out of them. Urban legend has it that any other containers will be left behind. The council, in its wisdom, has decided that recycling bins are not suitable for our island environment. So, we are left with nothing but a load of rubbish.