Admitting you don't recycle your rubbish is a bit like admitting you have syphilis – socially unmentionable, and it comes with a lingering sense of filthiness and shame. It's akin to saying, 'yes, I am a pig, I like rolling around in my own dirt, and I don't care if my gross selfishness brings about the end of the world in a tsunami of slurry'. That embarrassing and disgusting and wrong.
Not so long ago, it was only worthy, wide-eyed environmentalists who recycled their waste, with an enthusiasm that was frankly bizarre, and made you think they should take some urgent steps towards, you know, getting a life. These were the people who sprouted seeds on their windowsill, sparingly flushed the toilet, and denied themselves holidays in lovely hot places because they would have to fly there in a horrible pollution-spewing aeroplane. I'm sure many of these good souls still exist, probably living in Holywood or Helen's Bay, wearing homespun hemp underpants and attending weekly crystal-fondling workshops.
But now the rest of us have been guilted in to joining them. It appears that they were right all along. We simply can't afford to keep sending our rubbish to landfill, so recycling has become a necessity of modern life. And now Belfast City Council – the natural go-to guys for all kinds of bureaucratic enforcement strategies, give 'em a rule and they'll see that it's remorselessly imposed – are planning to up the ante still further by shrinking the size of our black bins, in a bid to meet stringent EU waste reduction targets. You will comply, comrades, or you will be forced to comply.
Look, I know councils need to keep pushing the recycling agenda or we'll end up knee-deep in nappies, bean tins and old cotton buds. I'm still haunted by that waste-reduction advert where rubbish starts raining from the skies, armageddon-style, and a woman gets hit on the side of the head by a stinky old bacon wrapper. But it seems that it's all stick, no carrot. Sorting household waste is fiddly and seemingly arbitrary. Why is it that your blue bin is considered contaminated if an envelope with a plastic window on it sneaks its way in there? Why can 'paper' go in the blue bin but not 'shredded paper'? And you will be punished if you get it wrong because the binmen, the burly sacristans of this neo-religious process, simply won't touch it. I don't expect recycling to be fun, but surely there could be some kind of incentive.
Certain English councils have had success with points-based schemes for proper use of the blue bin which can buy you a free swim at the local leisure centre or, er, a reduced-price water butt. Ok, it's not thrilling, but at least there's a spirit of encouragement, not finger-wagging.
It's not all bad though. I have to say I do get a strange sense of satisfaction from visiting my local recycling centre beside Ormeau Park. There's something almost cathartic about chucking all your rubbish in the appropriate bins, guided by the friendly on-site staff, then driving away feeling 10 times lighter. I guess it's the eco equivalent of colonic irrigation. Maybe that could be the slogan for Belfast City Council's next waste reduction drive.
But what gets me most about the recycling police is that the heaviest onus is, as usual, on the individual to take action, rather than big business, which generates all the bulky packaging in the first place. Supermarkets claim that they have to use those polystyrene wrappers, plastic trays and the like as a protective measure, because consumers won't buy damaged food. But of course the other, more influential, side of the story is that highly-finished, eye-grabbing 'shelf appeal' renders a product more attractive to many shoppers, making them more likely to buy it.
We don't have to take this lying down, of course. So here's a suggestion, already in use by some frustrated consumers. Next time you arrive home burdened with excessively packaged items, simply gather up all the wrapping and send it back to the supermarket in question, using their free-post customer services address. Maybe you'd like to add a note, requesting that they cut back on their packaging in future. It's not much, but at least you feel like a free agent, demanding that businesses face up to their social responsibilities, not a helpless passenger, dutifully rinsing out milk cartons, en route to eco-dystopia.
Hemp underpants are, of course, optional.