MT: The Sharp End - My bin-end opportunity

In a wheelie-shunting day, Rhymer Rigby gets to like the sound of breaking glass.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For this Sharp End, I was going to be a bin man for a day, but throwing out is going out of fashion. So MT's team of fixers and strategisers put me onto Biffa, a waste-management company. Far more fashionable, we decided, to do a recycling round. After all, the green-box collector is the dustman of our times.

Biffa collects all sorts of recyclables, but I was to do mixed glass. So, bright and early at 7am (all these jobs seem to start the wrong side of 9am), I showed up at Biffa's south Hertfordshire depot. I sat through the health and safety video (presented by a strangely entertaining former world champion weight-lifter), scored a creditable 80% on the post-vid quiz and was given a certificate. Then I met my driver, Michael Ciolkowski, and it was time to head out.

South Herts is an odd mix of picture-postcard villages that remind you why we have green belts - and grim suburban sprawl, which does the same. The cuter bits are threaded with hilly, tree-overhung lanes: not good places to drive an enormous recycling lorry. Nonetheless, Michael was skilful and incredibly courteous. In fact, I've never seen such a polite driver of a commercial vehicle. He braked for old ladies, gave way to others and thanked everyone. If only all drivers were like him. Sadly, the impatience and rudeness of many other road-users stood as a shaming contrast. As a native Hertfordshireman, I can only say road manners have deteriorated since I left.

Still, the work was easy enough. Nearly all glass collections were from pubs and bars, which ranged from a swanky golf club to places that looked like they had Sky Sports for the Cage Fighting channel. We'd drag the proprietary bins to the lorry and latch them onto a hoist, which hauled them up, dumping their contents with a deafening staccato of broken bottles. We'd then replace the bins. Do it once and you've done it 100 times.

This is not to say it was boring. I found the repetition soothing. It was also, all things considered, an impressively efficient and slick process. Bin data was even periodically entered onto an in-cab PDA, which communicated with Biffa's servers to generate still greater efficiencies. It was quite good stealth exercise, too. That is, pulling a single wheelie-bin full of glass isn't especially hard work, but pulling them all day is.

Indeed, the only thing that reminded me that I was in the waste-collection racket was the noxious liquid that dripped from the back of the wagon: a fetid cocktail of alcopops, designer lager, overstrength cider and pub wine. You could have marketed it as eau de binge, the smell of an English Saturday night.

By noon, we'd done 24 of our 32 jobs and we stopped in a vast pub car park for Michael's EU-mandated 30-minute driving break. Having had breakfast at 5am, I was ravenous and the only food on offer from a glum parade of suburban shops was a kebab. In your mid-30s (and without the customary seven-pint appetiser), they're not as good as you remember.

We continued our rounds, the smell of kebab cabbage mingling with the alcopops. By now, the lorry was carrying 12 tonnes of glass and felt heavy; Michael executed several alarming and noisy emergency stops in pub car parks to redistribute the load. Our final bins were the most exciting. At 3pm, the clogged roads were already fomenting rush-hour angst. And with a lorry this size you're going to inconvenience someone, somewhere. Directing Michael into a space by a pub, I tried to get the cars to play nice while he did so. 'Would you mind going there?' I asked one woman. 'He needs to get into that space.'

'And I need to get out, you fucking prick!' she replied. I think it was the tattoos on her face that checked my smart response.

We crawled (on some hills we managed only 5mph) to a recycling site near the M25 where, with an impressive clatter, our lorry disgorged its cargo of empties. All around us were hills of glass bottles which, I think, were being chipped into aggregate for use in concrete and road repair.

And then we headed home, our steed far lighter and more responsive. We'd made good time and the nature of the work meant that rather than slowing things down, my being there had speeded them up for once. Indeed, my only mistake had been to drop a single Bacardi Breezer bottle. I left Biffa with the unfamiliar sense of having been rather useful.

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