One creature's load of old rubbish is another's cornucopia. These seagulls wheeling over the rubbish tip in Warrington have struck it rich; the family that got rid of the old armchair in the corner of the picture may be feeling just as glad to be rid of their junk. Nature has its own way of cleaning up - cockroaches, rodents and flies carry off their spoil, scavenging bacteria slowly break down even the hardest plastics. Human beings, unfortunately, are less dedicated.
According to the Tidy Britain Group (once the Keep Britain Tidy campaign, but renamed to take account of reality) fly-tipping is on the increase. One of the main reasons why lorries are driving at dead of night to abandoned industrial sites and quiet country lanes, to leave mounds of rotting vegetables and builder's rubble, is, paradoxically, the landfill tax introduced in October 1996. Aimed at getting contractors to recycle instead of dump, the tax has instead created a grey market in rubble, which is now spread under all manner of new developments, from golf courses to roads.
Operators of waste tips are feeling the loss of an estimated 23 millions tonnes of inert waste, which they spread over household rubbish every evening to seal up pollution. More worryingly, nine million tonnes of hazardous organic or chemical waste has also gone missing somewhere in the countryside.
Consumption, greed, a fortune being made in waste - no new scenario by any means. In Charles Dickens's "Our Mutual Friend", published in 1865, the mounds of rubbish accumulated by the miser Harmon symbolise the meaningless acquisitiveness of society. Instead of seagulls, the mounds were picked by fortune-hunting humans, whose greed prevented them seeing the real treasure in human relationships. Not much change there, then.