Why my family rubbish needs a different home

Dustbin lorries at overflowing landfill sites prompted Fiona Russell to resolve that her family rubbish would take the green route.

In Salvage, his most recent novel, Hull-based author Robert Edric imagines a small town in the north of England 100 years from now.

A government official is inspecting plans to expand the town in order to house people displaced by climate change. But the land had been polluted long ago by a poisonous mixture of agricultural chemicals, industrial and household waste and diseased animal carcases.

Then the heavens open, the groundwater starts to rise and the inspector finds himself stranded in the middle of a toxic flood.

I should have left Edric's book for Lent. As it was, it gave me a nasty case of pre-Christmas indigestion. At our house, we like to think we are reasonably green – kind of light green, with a few darker spots.

We recycle a rather frightening amount of paper, cardboard, newspapers, and plastic containers, and a rather embarrassing

number of wine bottles. We compost at least one largish pedal-bin-full of kitchen scraps a week. But then there is the rest – which we really don't want to think about.

I thought back, guiltily, to last year's festive excess and resolved to do better. I wrapped our presents in brown paper and ribbon and pounced on anything I could possibly recycle.

But the kitchen bin yawned – a black hole swallowing up a small mountain of plastic food wrapping, orange peel, bones, toys from crackers, and so on.

The last straw came when the bin men arrived and emptied our black bin and (my carefully sorted) green bin into the same truck and disappeared up the road.

So that was that – our contribution to the almost 30m tonnes of rubbish the UK throws away per year was on its way to be land-filled or incinerated. I was left haunted by a mental image of our Christmas binge as a stinking gloop – still putrefying 50, 70, 100 years from now.

I began reading up on rubbish, and my indigestion got worse. Did you know that a plastic bag has a minimum life-span of 100 years, that packaging constitutes 35 per cent of the UK's plastic consumption, that the methane emitted from landfills is thought to be responsible for about 40 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions?

It was time for a New Year's resolution. We were going to reduce our rubbish, if not to zero then by a significant amount.

"Reduce, Re-use, Repair, Recycle," I explained to my eight-year-old twins. They looked faintly bored.

I needed them on my side if it was going to work. Then, inspiration struck. The twins, like most children, love 'yuck', the smellier the better.

We would begin with an audit. We would collect all the non-recyclable rubbish we produced in a week and make a list. The whole exercise was bound to be completely revolting. They'd love it!

And here is what we found.

Ash: In the winter, a surprisingly large amount of our rubbish is ash from the wood we burn in our stove. The snag is that it is polluted by firelighters and some smokeless coal.

Plastic wrapping: This, I'm sure, was worse than usual (honest guv), the result of too many quick trips down to the Co-op over the holiday period.

Aluminium: Fortunately not too much of this, just some milk bottle tops, yoghurt lids, a few mince pie tins and rather a lot of sweet wrappers.

Cooked scraps which we don't compost for fear of attracting vermin.

Peel from citrus fruit: We don't want to give our worms indigestion.

Potato peelings: We don't want to give our potatoes nasty diseases.

Bones: We definitely don't want the dog to end up at the vets.

Finally we found rather a lot of miscellaneous stuff – a ruined paintbrush, a broken plate, two old toothbrushes, two polystyrene trays, a couple of pairs of worn-out tights…

"Well, what do you think?" I asked anxiously, looking at my eldest twin. "Rubbish," she replied, with a great big smile.

Next: Fiona consults the experts.

CW 15/1/11