Beyoncé stops running her teeth along my left ear lobe and casts a puzzled glance toward the bedroom window. She’s heard something. Moments later Christina Aguilera, who’s been doing similar stuff around the right lobe, pauses as well. Aguilera also looks puzzled. ‘What,’ she asks, ‘is that clanking noise?’ ‘Clanking?’ I murmur in my reverie. ‘Yeah,’ says Beyoncé. ‘Clanking. Like a dustbin being lifted into a dustcart.’ ‘Like a dustbin being lifted into a… NOOOOOO!’ I hurl myself out of bed and into the kitchen where I begin to frantically shove newspapers, takeaway cartons, satsuma skins and wine bottles into a black bin liner.
We’re given plenty of warnings about the things that can go wrong in London. About the drugs that will mess with your mind and the sexual infections that will cause alarming disfigurements to your genitalia. We’re warned that people will think you are mad if you, say, smile at them on public transport. And that if you buy peanuts from the jar behind the bar instead of a packet it will cost £4 for a small bowl containing traces of at least 23 people’s faeces. But what we’re seldom warned about is how difficult it is to get rid of your rubbish in London.
In Berlin, Paris, New York and Madrid, your relationship with a carton or bottle ends when you are finished using it. In London, finishing with something is merely the warm-up for the main part of the relationship: the fraught matter of its correct disposal.
No one here just puts the rubbish out. Across the city, boroughs operate a near psychedelic array of different coloured bins and date-specific coloured refuse collection operations which make getting rid of things considerably harder than getting them in the first place. In one borough, second Tuesdays in the month are plastic bottle collection days (in the black bin, not the green one!). In another, third Fridays are food waste collection days (in the green bin, not the black one!). And even though everything we throw out gets mixed up and sent to China anyway, these divisions are enforced rigorously.
Get it wrong and you risk the sort of social stigma once preserved for the man who took cocaine wraps and porn mags to a christening (to be fair, it was a long service), although today the only embarrassment cocaine wraps and porn mags could cause is if you failed to dispose of them in the correct container (paper and cardboard, black bin, Wednesday – come on, keep up!)
But what if you missed the first bin collection after the Christmas holiday, leaving you with two weeks’ worth of packaging, empty bottles and rotting turkey? Worse, what if you are about to sleep through the second bin collection after the Christmas holiday because you are dallying in your dreams with the world’s premier R&B artiste (and another, slightly less premier)? Naturally, sorting suffers. Everything goes in one bag, which I manage to get out of the door and put firmly down on the pavement at the very moment the refuse team arrives. But I put it down a little too firmly. The bin bag teeters and falls, spilling bread crusts, satsuma skins, wine bottles and teabags around the refuse collector.
We look down at the detritus. ‘No chance,’ I say, ‘of putting it on the cart, I suppose?’ Looking up, his eyes flash reproach rather than anger. ‘That,’ he says solemnly, ‘is food waste. This week is a general domestic waste, paper and cardboard week. Next week is food waste, plastic and glass.’ The flush of shame reddens my cheeks. ‘Sorry.’ I get down on my knees and start to push the rubbish back into the bin liner. When I return to the bedroom Beyoncé has gone. And bloody Aguilera.
Read more of Michael Hodges’ columns.
Four other tricky areas of disposable culture:
DOG POO TREES A scrawny sapling festooned with black dog-excrement bags was briefly considered as the logo for the 2012 Olympics until someone decided a squashed neon swastika would be more appropriate.
STREET GUM In the 1980s, young Londoners started an ambitious project which aimed to cover every pavement in the capital with gooey dots. Although organisers claim to be on track, so far only Oxford Street has been completed and the mission is rumoured to have come unstuck.
FLY-TIPPING A strange druidical rite to placate woodland spirits by leaving spent domestic appliances in London’s open spaces. Hence the 1970s electric cooker in a grove in Sydenham Hill Woods.
PUB PANTS It remains the case in most London pubs that if you go in the men’s toilets and look behind the bowl you’ll find a pair of discarded underpants. It’s a mystery – nonetheless, investigate no further.