You could track the rise of ecological self-consciousness by the messages the children absorbed at, and brought home from, school. With a long family, you can see trends rise and fall.
There’s nothing so beady-eyed as a small child watching a parent doing something that a beloved teacher has explained is bad for the planet, so for many years we have been careful to distinguish rubbish and recycling. The eyes stay beady even when the children get bigger, and catching people out is the joy of the ecological warrior. We used to pride ourselves on the amount of recycling we managed, and on how little we had to throw away. The ordinary rubbish bin was known censoriously as “landfill”, and we had boxes for paper and card and a different one for recyclable plastics.
We tried to make sure there wasn’t too much in any of them, buying unwrapped fruit and vegetables, refill packs of soap etc where possible, meat from the butcher not the supermarket, and taking the egg boxes back to the chicken lady at the Farmers’ Market for refilling.
I find sourcing this sort of thing is actually trickier in the affluent south-east than further north, but we do what we can. We have had two compost bins in the garden for years, and our council recently started a new scheme to collect all food waste and compost it once a week, so we had no excuse for not composting ever. After all, are we brain dead? Then came the virus.
Shopping changed, supermarket shelves emptied and you weren’t supposed to go out. Once Rachel arrived home, we circled the wagons, with Rachel’s little wagon diligently circling in the middle on its own, like the hole in a doughnut. We started lockdown with a bang, as Mary thought she’d picked up the virus somewhere and we were all so terrified of Rachel catching it. It was a strange time, and it feels oddly long ago now and difficult to remember. We couldn’t go shopping, so we started having supplies delivered by a friendly local small supermarket and other internet suppliers, and our ecological rubbish started to pile up.
It’s a shame because people were beginning to take waste seriously, from micro-plastics in the ocean to exporting waste to countries much poorer and less equipped to deal with it than ourselves. Laudato si’ made it a high-profile and practical religious question and it was gaining traction. I feel really bad about the rubbish I cannot now avoid. I can’t even go to the dump without an appointment, and my beloved charity shops, such a good place to recycle unwanted or outgrown things, are only just starting to reopen and don’t really welcome donations at the moment. I don’t know how long it will take before we can get back to our pre-COVID levels of rubbish, but I hope it won’t be long before we start trying to.
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With thanks to The Tablet and Kate Keefe, where this article originally appeared.