Neil McNicholas: The puzzle of our throwaway culture

I’ve always enjoyed watching Time Team on the television – sadly no longer broadcast except in repeats.

One of the things that amazes me is that they can be excavating a site where various ages of people have lived from pre-Roman to medieval times and may find only a few shards of domestic pottery, a coin or two, or a piece of broken jewellery.

Not yet having metal pots and pans or utensils, how come there aren’t more broken earthenware pots and bowls to be found? Clearly such things were of value and were cared for.

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Can you imagine archaeologists 2,000 years from now digging through the remains of our communities? Imagine them “geophys-ing” your typical council landfill site. Every shovel they stick in the ground will unearth our detritus in unbelievable quantities, evidence of how we lived.

By then will they have come up with a better way of disposing of their rubbish that it will give them pause to wonder how we could throw away so much and in such volumes.

Sadly Time Team 4014 won’t need to tackle only our landfill sites because they will find discarded rubbish everywhere – in our gardens, our streets, along our motorway verges, in the countryside, even in what were considered beauty spots. Why did we do this, they will wonder? How could we trash our world so wilfully?

I ask myself the same questions.

When I was working in the Middle East (in my pre-priesthood days), every day we drove past the chain-link perimeter fence of the airport south of the city and downstream of the prevailing desert wind.

The fence was an artwork fit for the Tate Gallery (but not much else), festooned with perhaps thousands of multi-coloured plastic bags which came with anything bought in the shops. Of course no one ever cleared them up – they just eventually tore themselves into shreds and blew even further afield.

One of my previous presbyteries was next to a school and every day I could have gone out and filled a plastic shopping bag with all the sweet wrappers and crisp packets blown into my garden, discarded by the kids as they were dropped off and picked up at the school gate.

The first thing parents would do was hand their offspring something to eat and the first thing they in turn would do was throw away whatever it was wrapped in – and their parents clearly never stopped them.

I have a friend who went into his local pizza outlet and, tongue in cheek, asked the proprietor if he could make his pizzas about two inches wider so that by the time people were finished eating them, they would be a couple of houses further down the street and he wouldn’t have to keep picking up all the discarded pizza boxes from his garden.

And don’t even get me started on fly-tippers. It simply defies all understanding that such people will deliberately dump things in the countryside with absolutely no concern for the consequences of their lawlessness and an “I’m all right, Jack – someone else will pick it up” attitude.

Just the other week I was driving along a stretch of wooded road and someone had dumped seven or eight car tyres. I suppose we should be happy there weren’t more, along with a sideboard, a washing machine, and a couple of mattresses, because that would have been typical.

Yes, we all generate varying quantities of rubbish every day. But what is wrong with us as a society that we can’t dispose of it properly and with due consideration for others and for the environment?

Why is it apparently quite acceptable for some to simply roll down their car window, wherever they may be at the time, and throw out their rubbish for someone else to deal with instead of taking it home with them and putting it in the bin where it belongs?

Does it never cross their minds that all the money that councils then have to spend employing people to go round clearing up this wave of detritus could be better spent? Or do they consider they are providing a social service by making it necessary to provide employment for those people?

• Father Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Middlesbrough.