Talking rubbish for ever requires hard thinking

What can one person do to reduce the rising pile of black bin bags? Fiona Russell, having tackled her kitchen, consults an expert.

In The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, the late John Seymour envisaged a way of life where the dustman hardly ever called. Maybe he wasn't dreaming. This week, it was announced that, under plans being considered by councils, families could be rationed to 80 bags of rubbish a year.

Rubbish can be fun, particularly if, like me, you're a bit of an obsessive. If truth be told, I enjoy household recycling – all that sorting, folding and crushing. But rubbish is also hell. The contents of our black bin overwhelm me. I feel only despair and helplessness when faced with the rotten muddle which is three days of waste from our kitchen.

I realise my battle with the family's rubbish is more than a bit psychological. I need to talk. So I go to visit one of our neighbours, Steve Smith, a member of MASTT (Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Towns).

It's part of a wider movement preparing communities for climate change and the end of oil. But he also works as a consultant, most recently helping North Yorkshire County Council develop their waste and minerals strategy.

"Pretty much everything MASTT does is ultimately about waste," he says. "We've been organising ethical fashion shows where people transform their old clothes and swap them with one another. Cheap clothes, which we wear for perhaps four or five times and then put in the bin, are hugely wasteful. We've been trying to give them a new life."

We're agreed the short life of so much of what we consume today is seriously troubling. We use the average plastic bottle four to six weeks from purchase to being thrown away and the life of plastic packaging, is even shorter. At least the plastic bottle can be recycled, I point out.

But Steve points to deficiencies in conventional recycling. "Recycling is better than landfill, but it's also very wasteful. Your plastic bottle goes from collection to a plant to be cleaned and sorted. Then it's transported to another plant to be broken down. Then it will have to be manufactured into something new. All this uses a huge amount of heat, water, power, diesel..."

Steve thinks I need to expand my sense of what waste is.

He suggests I start by thinking of stuff in terms of "embodied energy". My plastic bottle is a combination of all the resources which go into manufacturing, distributing and disposing of it. It's an interesting challenge. We think of plastic as the ultimate throwaway material. When I was a child, plastic was almost always prefaced with cheap, but it's actually hugely expensive in terms of resources.

It is made almost exclusively from non-renewable fossil fuels, requires huge amounts of energy to produce, and nobody knows how long it will take to break down: plastic hasn't existed long enough for us to find out. Most plastic shopping bags, for instance, are made from polyethylene, which in the ground may last for 500 or 1,000 years because the microganisms in the earth which do the biodegrading, don't recognise it as food.

Oh dear. Where do I start?

"You need to begin by reducing," advises Steve. "Buy only what you need and buy to last. The conventional approach to waste is linear – I buy something, I use it and then I throw it away. You need, instead, as far as possible, to create a circular system, a feedback loop. For example, cooked scraps can feed chickens who will then provide you with eggs, and so on.

"The problem is, everything at the moment seems to conspire against the zero waste ideal,"adds Steve. "Even the Co-op, with all its ethical policies and principles, can't get around to introducing brown paper bags."

I go home thinking our watchword needs to be reduce – with repairing, reusing and recycling as our fall-back positions.

"No shopping," I tell the family.

My husband listens and then points out, "It's the end of January, so we haven't got any money left anyway."

Next: Time for Action!

CW 29/1/11