Every week I roll out the bins. It’s become a ritual that I find unexpectedly satisfying.
Unlike in Hong Kong, where our rubbish is spirited away each evening by little seen collectors, in England each household is expected to fill large collections bins which are emptied very fortnight.
There are three types of bins: black bins for domestic waste, blue bins for recyclable and green bins for garden waste. These bins must be left on the street on collection day, where bin collectors can easily unload them into waiting rubbish collection vehicles.
Every week the bin men come early in the morning, in their high visibility uniforms, to empty the bins. There is always a team of four. At each village three will shuttle between the waiting bins left outside each home awaiting collection. These are brought to the back of their vehicle where an automated lifter tips the contents of each into a compactor. The fourth person, the driver, drives the vehicle along slowly as the rest of the team work.
Most weeks I run in to the bin men on the way to driving my wife to work. We leave a few hours before the commuter rush, as she has an early start. When a car approaches one of the bin men always rushes forward to direct the traffic. On narrow village roads it can be difficult to see past any large vehicle.
Before moving to the country we lived for a few years in London. In the city the bin men were never so considerate nor, frankly, polite. Occasionally they would miss collections, overlooking our bins in the rush to get the job done.
There is more that can go wrong in a city, and the relative anonymity encourages poor practice. They also seem to be under greater time pressure. And yet even if the odd neighbour complains (as neighbours do) the bin men are not overlooked. The service they provide is acknowledged and generally respected by the community.
It was very different when we lived in Hong Kong. Rubbish was simply left outside the back entrance to our flat, and usually by helpers. It was not uncommon for our neighbours to have no interaction with those who collected their rubbish, it was simply taken for granted that it would be gone every morning.
Much of the rubbish collection was done by elderly women, who were evident untrained. Rarely were they equipped with anything more than gloves and, sometimes, a face covering. I used to watch them, and on occasion tried to engage with them when I saw them at sat around the service stairs, behind the lobby and out of sight from residents.
As I pass by the bin men here I signal my thanks. They usually signal back. What they do is seen and appreciated, and I recognise them as part of my own community. They live among us, eat among us and their children may well attend the same school as our own.
One of the celebrities I admire most is the gardener and author Monty Don. A gentile, educated and thoughtful man, born into a good family and with a Cambridge education, he nevertheless spent some years working as a bin man.
There are friends I know from Hong Kong who would look down on this, and consider it a “waste” of an education. But what we do now does not define who we were nor who we may be. Knowing this is, I feel, a sign of not only of respect but of maturity.