May 4, 2008

I'm obsessed with the rubbish collections. How much does one's trash say about who you are? My trash has hypochondriac written all over it

I suppose if you can't stop terrorism the next best thing is a crackdown on rubbish. A few weeks ago in Cumbria, a 26-year-old bus driver was fined £225 for overfilling his bin by four inches. He now has a criminal record. That same week I received a letter from Environmental Services.

"Dear Resident," it began, "Documentation with your name and address was found inside a sealed white bag under a "No Dumping" sign. A photocopy of the document is enclosed."

Someone had gone through my trash? That was a little creepy. The letter went on to say that rubbish on the street on unauthorised days is an offence and carries a maximum fine of £2,500 on conviction. Or, I could accept a fixed penalty notice of £80.

I contacted the person who owns the flat I was staying in. She was delighted. "I'm so happy they're looking after the neighbourhood," She said. "People have been putting their rubbish out on Sundays and it's not right."

Not exactly the response I had in mind. But if people had been putting their rubbish out on Sundays - why was I being targeted? I put the rubbish out on Tuesday, the day of pick-up.

"Yes, but it was a few hours early," the man on the phone said. I was asking a lot of questions, mentioned I was a journalist and he replied, "I know." How? He had gone through the trash. I was informed that once it's on the street it's public domain.

Naturally I began to panic. What else had I thrown out? Account numbers, private information or even more disturbing - old notebooks with bad writing?

It got me thinking: how much does one's trash say about who you are?

My trash has hypochondriac written all over it. It's filled with empty bottles and boxes of preventive medicines. Echinacea tincture and zinc tablets. It's got aluminum packets where all the Strepsils have been punched out and discarded bottles of First Defence. It's also probably got loads of doctors' receipts and printed out pages of illnesses I'd Googled.

There would also be packages for figs, prunes, dates, nuts and berries. My trash isn't very exciting. Unless you're a raccoon with a cold.

I asked a friend what was in his trash.

"Microwave meal containers, empty beer bottles and cigarette butts. What does that say?"

It says depressing. And that he's due for a check-up.

My friend Sam, who juices everything, wouldn't mind someone else going through her trash. It's all compost.

"My trash says I have a small holding farm on the second floor."

The following day I had to meet with the Cleansing and Enforcement Officer in person so that I could be legally cautioned and advised of my rights. We couldn't do it over the phone; he had to hand me the penalty notice in person.

I arrived at the offices at the appointed time. I was offered a cup of tea. Then we sat down in a room and he presented me with some of the items I'd thrown away.

"Would you like these back?" He asked.

That was an odd question. Why would I want them back if I'd thrown them away?

After 20 minutes I was handed a ticket and told that was the end of it.

That weekend, from my window I could see bags of rubbish piled up under the "No Dumping" sign and it didn't seem fair.

The officer had supplied his mobile number on the initial letter. That was a mistake. I called and left him a message alerting him to the rubbish situation and how it was four whole days before pick-up. If I had to go down I wanted others to go with me. Plus, I was only doing my civic duty.

He never called back. Now I'm obsessed with the rubbish collections. It's three days a week but two of the pick-ups are consecutive: Tuesday and Wednesday. Why not spread it out? I've become way too invested. I won't even throw a piece of lint on the street unless it's the right time.

Whosever job it is to pick through the trash - that can't be fun. Maybe I should spike my trash with something valuable and leave it out on the wrong day. Just to see what would happen. Probably nothing. If I put two tickets to the European Cup Final in the rubbish, what are the chances I'd get them back?