After all

E&T takes a philosophical, if somewhat politically incorrect, look at the matters of recycling.

Talking rubbish

I heard somewhere recently that success or failure of our attempts to combat climate change will be largely decided by three Rs - 'recycling, recycling, and recycling'.

Rubbish dumps have always struck me as highly philosophical places. Humans, after all, are similar to cows, who, for one litre of fresh milk, produce tonnes of manure. Mountains of refuse surround every hillock of human achievement, and waste disposal has become one of the most burning problems of our times. I often try to visualise how a proverbial scrap heap of history would appear. I see it as a larger version of a standard rubbish dump where heaps of rust-eaten swords, bullet-ridden helmets and dog-eared folios are mixed with disintegrating dogmas, moss-covered political ambitions and rotten military doctrines.

My favourite London rubbish dump, where I used to go often with various girlfriends to dispose of bulky household items (I feared - prophetically - that one day they might dump me there, too) was quite civilised, if naturally filthy. Like a distorting mirror, it accurately reflected everyday life, on the seamy side of which it was conveniently located.

To begin with, one could no longer call it a rubbish dump. A large sign at its entrance informed that it was now a 'Civic Amenity' under North London Waste Authority, no less. To me, the sign made it quite plain that political correctness had finally come to the rubbish dump, the place where it organically belonged.

"The public may enter this site only on purpose of depositing rubbish and do so on their own risk," read another authoritative sign, probably installed by the mysterious 'Waste Authority'. Its wording used to strike me as arrogantly British: had it not been for the warning, the dull-witted 'general public' would undoubtedly start coming to the rubbish dump in droves to play snooker or to have a Malaysian meal.

Social dump

And in a small English town, where I live now, the local rubbish dump (or 'tip', as we call it) has become an extremely social place. People go there on Saturday or Sunday not just to get rid of their lives' excesses, but to catch up with friends and neighbours and to exchange local gossip. It has become the town's equivalent of a social club, or even a theatre.

Depositing rubbish can be a risky business: we express ourselves in not only what we create, but also in what (or whom) and how we dump.

Disposing of rubbish is often the first step towards creative self-manifestation - of a person or even of a nation.

The place that struck me once as an epitome of Switzerland was a communal rubbish dump near the town of Sargans. At first sight, it could be easily mistaken for a deserted Legoland playground. Freshly painted boxes of many different colours stood inside a geometrically correct rectangular enclosure. Each of them had a tag saying 'Paper', 'Cardboard', 'Metal', 'Glass', 'Clothes' and even 'Old Furniture Pieces'.

The ground inside was evenly covered with unpolluted gravel: not a single microscopic piece of paper could be spotted on it. And towering above this amazing receptacle of neatness was a placard in German: 'Littering the territory of this rubbish dump is punishable by law'.

I thought one would be able to safely eat from the gravel surface, and one morning I even saw a uniformed attendant hosing it clean with soapy water. Tables in many restaurants in London were a lot dirtier than the territory of that small Swiss rubbish dump.

That made me ponder over Switzerland's rate of suicides - one of Europe's highest. Can it be that the Swiss regard taking one's own life as the ultimate form of cleanliness?

Aspirations tip

Not so long ago, I visited the world's first and only international rubbish dump, conveniently situated on both sides of the Dutch-Belgian border in the outskirts of a peculiar Dutch/Belgian town Baarle-Nassau/Baarle Hertog.

In its cleanliness, Baarle's new Dutch-Belgian 'waste park' (for that is what it was called) was closer to the Swiss rubbish dump than to my favourite London 'civic amenity'. A soft music from hidden (or dumped?) loudspeakers was floating above rows of containers, marked 'Plastic', 'Asbestos', 'Bottles', 'Building Materials', but they were all of one colour - light-green. There were also special wooden crates, neatly packed with old radio parts, transistors, computer panels and electric appliances. The park's most interesting feature, however, was that it had been deliberately laid out to allow the Dutch-Belgian frontier to run straight through its middle. Why?

I addressed this question to Ludovik, or Ludo, as he insisted on being called. Ludo's politically correct job title was probably 'collateral matter co-ordinator', and he proudly informed me that he was the town's Mayor's brother-in-law. Obviously, there was no stigma attached to being a worker at the rubbish dump in Baarle.

"The reason is that certain substances - like asbestos and cement, say - which are banned from being dumped in Holland can be disposed of on the Belgian side of the waste park a couple of metres away, and vice versa," said Ludo, in his near-perfect English, which didn't quite agree with his violet bulbous nose resembling a badly printed map of the London Underground. We were standing on the Dutch side of the rubbish dump, and as we spoke I had a clear view of the 'near-abroad', where a red Belgian tractor was pushing around containers with some mixed Dutch-Belgian waste in them.

Working at a place like that, Ludo could not help being a philosopher, of course. "In the end, it all comes to waste," he concluded, with an omniscient grin, common to gravediggers, undertakers and rubbish-collectors.

I always felt that cemeteries and rubbish dumps had a lot in common: a cemetery, after all, is a well-kept rubbish dump, where our worn-out remains are bound to be left one day; and a rubbish dump is, in a way, a cemetery, where all by-products of our messy lives - from the headless teddy-bears of childhood to wasted opportunities of youth and unfulfilled aspirations of maturity - are buried.

I did warn you: rubbish dumps never fail to put me in a philosophical frame of mind. Baarle's 'waste park', however, was special. Not just because it was the world's only international rubbish dump, with a border running across it. It also symbolised a small triumph of human ingenuity over shenanigans of international bureaucracy.

While in Baarle, I came across another feat of inventiveness and originality - this time purely in the field of technology. I will tell you about it in my next "After All…" column.

Vitali Vitaliev is features editor of E&T (vvitaliev@theiet.org)

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