A couple of miles from my home, down on the other side of the motorway, in a semi-industrial scrubland of building-supply merchants, gearbox specialists and a mysterious warehouse called Limbs and Things, lies the Household Waste Recycle Centre. At least, the council calls it the “HWRC”; everyone else calls it the dump. I have visited this enchanted acre seven or eight times this past year, and I always emerge feeling happy and serene. I see it as my favourite piece of municipal infrastructure – and clearly, I am not alone. “People love it here. Honestly, with some of them, it’s like they’ve seen the Second Coming,” said one of the waste-management officers on a recent visit. When the dump reopened after the first lockdown, the queue to get in stretched 200 cars long. Like pubs, like school, like the touch of our loved ones, we missed it when it wasn’t available.
There’s a number-plate system in place now to limit the hordes, but it’s still massively popular – queues 30, 40, 50 cars long. Imprisoned in our homes this last year, we all have a lot to process, a lot to throw away. I have unloaded the contents of a garage there, a couple of tons of concrete from our front garden, a floor’s worth of carpet and underlay, plus various defunct appliances, a broken chair, a sawn-up tree and much emotional baggage, too. I don’t mind waiting for my turn. If anything, the restrictions have heightened the pleasures of the dump: the gruff camaraderie; the clang of rubble against corrugated metal; the fascination of other people’s waste; the stellar levels of customer service, particularly from Pete, the soulful maître-d’ who directs each car to the appropriate bay: “What you bringing, my friend?” “Hardcore.” “Go straight on through.”
There was one nerve-racking afternoon when I turned up foolishly late, only to find it was “touch-and-go” whether I would make it before the gates closed. “It’s heartbreaking turning people away,” Pete told me and I believed him.
But he got me in. The second-to-last car. What a thrill, walking up to the small appliances skip and slam-dunking my old vacuum cleaner on to a 1980s microwave. The glass door shattered in applause.
There are some magnificent machines at the dump. There is a gigantic swivelling claw known as the “360”; a stationary crane; a fleet of forklifts, bulldozers and dumpers to load the materials on to lorries carrying them God knows where. But my favourite is the Bergmann Roll-Packer, a squat little vehicle with a toothed drum on the end of a powerful arm. Apparently it offers unrivalled compaction in open containers. According to my new friend Marlon, who works at the HWRC, these machines are every bit as fun to use as you might imagine. Marlon, aka Chef Marz, is trying to get a barbecue street food business off the ground between shifts – but in the meantime, he seems contented enough. “This is probably the best job I ever had to be fair,” he says.
At the dump, everything has its place, no matter how abject or broken. There are sections for usable paint, nonferrous metals, fluorescent lighting tubes, spectacles – even a dark corner where asbestos is processed. Mark Miodownik, materials scientist at UCL, sees it as an inverted version of a shopping mall, which is funny, as I find I like it almost precisely as much as I dislike shopping.
“Dumps didn’t really exist to the extent that they do now until we had modern consumerist culture,” he says. “You don’t have to go back too far to find a time when most households contained few possessions, and they certainly didn’t get through them at any appreciable rate.” In the Britain of the recent past, objects were valued and repaired and had second, third and fourth lives.
The capitalist incentive towards perpetual growth has changed that. “A kettle is now as disposable as a Biro. You can buy a kettle for £5 or £6, it will last for a year and it is unrepairable. So there is nothing for it but to take it to the dump. It’s the backside of consumerism,” says Miodownik. The semantic link between “going for a…” and “going to the…” is not coincidental, he points out. “In the same way it’s satisfying going for a poo, there is a sigh of relief for everyone leaving the dump,” he muses. “You feel relieved – maybe because you freed up space for more stuff.”
There is, then, something a tiny bit shameful about the dump – as I was reminded recently when I forgot to put out my bins a couple of times in a row and had to bring along a couple of black bags of soiled nappies for the non-recyclables bin. But there is also something redemptive. It’s more honest, I feel, visiting the dump than leaving your things in a black bin bag to be collected or depositing them under a flyover – which is what plenty of people did when the dump was shut. And a conscientious household-waste recycler will only use the non-recyclables as a last resort, having first deposited anything reusable at the charity shop or, simply, on a front wall for a passerby to take.
I have even come to take pleasure in the pre-dump ritual of curating my waste: ripping out metal brackets from MDF, patiently sorting “Plasterboard Mix” from “Plasterboard Plain”, much as a Marie Kondo disciple sparks joy by locating the optimal place to fold a shirt.
Still, it’s incredible what people throw away. A bag full of shoes; a modular sofa that looks perfectly OK to me; planters; printers (so many printers!); a purple Wendy house. For senior users, the modern HWRC is a pale shadow of the dumps of old, literal dumping grounds, where children would frolic dangerously among claws and families would return home with almost as much stuff as they came with. “I frequently have to curb the desire to fill the boot while the attendants aren’t looking,” says Bryan, a family friend and seasoned HWRC habitué. “Apparently once something has been dumped, it is the property of the council, so happening upon something that you have an urge to rehome constitutes theft.”
His partner, Peta, is more of a late-in-life convert. “My son once asked if I had a loyalty card,” she says. “I think I discovered the delight of the dump after a decade of living among all Bryan’s possessions.”
While women can and do take pleasure from these rituals, they are a relatively rare sight at the dump. Certainly it seems to be men who attach the strongest feelings to the place; perhaps it’s the male equivalent of wild swimming or book clubs. In David Nicholls’s TV adaptation of his novel Us, Tom Hollander’s character, Douglas, visits the dump after his wife Connie has told him she wants a divorce. Connie calls it his “fortress of solitude”. “For him, it’s a place of order and cleansing and everything-in-its-place,” explains Nicholls. “It’s reassuringly clearly defined, a sense of things-being-done-right.” Cheaper than therapy, too, he points out.
The last time I truly wept in a film was a dump scene: the climax of Toy Story 3, in which Woody, Buzz and friends come within centimetres of incineration at a facility that feels very much like a 21st-century version of the Boschian hellscape, Christ in Limbo. In the end, isn’t this what is coming to us all? But the comfort of the dump also lies in that Pixarish sweet spot between childish pleasure and grown-up responsibility. I remember my dad taking me when I was small – it was like my construction toys had come to life. I take my son sometimes and he loves it, too. And even when I’m there on my own, I find that I can’t resist a little game: seeing how far I can toss a roll of underlay… aiming a fence post so it smashes a French door.
All the same, to use the dump, you must have a car, a home, a council tax bill and hopefully a medium-sized DIY project on the go. In other words, you have passed a few basic tests of adult patriarchal bourgeois respectability. You have earned your place in that community of men who give one another thumbs-ups and say: “Spot on.” Once, my friend Chadders hired a van and was allowed to use the tradesman’s entrance. “I had to don a yellow jacket, and reversed up to the chute guided in by a professional,” he recalls. “Huge amount of pressure, but when he tapped on the roof as a sign of success, I’ve never been prouder. You then get to tip everything out the back straight into the pit. No sorting. Just toss it down the chute. Beautiful.”
If you are an ordinary householder, this is, perhaps, as good as it gets. But we are water-boatmen, skating on the surface of the pond, only dimly aware of the richness and danger of the life underneath. More than once I have wondered whether a life of moving words around a page is really for me, if I wouldn’t be happier in a profession that brought me into more intimate contact with the dump. Edmond, an old school friend of mine, works as an arborist at the Edmonton EcoPark, a vast, falcon-filled forest that has been planted around LondonEnergy, where the rubbish of north and east London is converted into electricity. He has VIP access.
“It’s like something from a 1970s James Bond film inside,” he says. “The control rooms flash with large coloured buttons and levers. Meshed iron bridges cross over huge chambers where the enormous power generators hum monotonously. A constant stream of articulated lorries queue from the A406 on filtered roadways. The River Lee surrounds the vicinity, as a moat guarding a castle.”
There is a psychic unburdening that comes from visiting the dump. The mind is a house with many rooms. Some are locked. Some are so full of clutter they are barely functional. How mentally freeing it is, finally, to do something about that pile that has been accumulating in the periphery of your vision.
What we forget in all this is that the dump is not the end of the life cycle of these materials. Far from it. Many of them will long outlive our own fragile bodies. “We are going to reach the limits of this mode of perpetual economic growth quite quickly,” says Miodownik. If the actual environmental costs of consumer goods were baked into their price, they would be so expensive that we would be forced to reuse and repurpose them. Then we might see ourselves as custodians rather than consumers and most sections of the dump would become obsolete.
In the meantime, it is perhaps the truest reflection of who we are. Rubbish does not lie. “Today’s garbage is tomorrow’s treasure,” says Guy Bar-Oz, a zooarchaeologist from the University of Haifa, who sees trash heaps as rich sources of knowledge and insight. “I guess that future generations will call this period the Plastic Age, the same as we tag the Iron Age or the Bronze Age.”
He and his team were able to determine that the ancient Byzantine city of Elusa had stopped collecting its rubbish a full century before its eventual collapse in the 7th century. A civilisation that stops sorting through its rubbish is a civilisation in trouble.