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Dumped: Could You Survive on a Landfill?

Some unsuspecting reality TV contestants who signed up for an "eco-challenge" were dumped on a landfill for three weeks and learned to survive on other people's garbage.
 
 
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It would be tough, they were told -- an "eco challenge" in a secret location. They would need to pack their passports and update their jabs. Sasha Gardner, a Bournemouth-based glamour model, was expecting to visit a rainforest or pacific island. "But when we turned up, we weren't at an airport," she says, "we were in a rubbish dump in Croydon."

Gardner and 10 other contestants are set to be the latest stars of reality TV, but Dumped, a new series to be screened on Channel 4 early next month, is no Shipwrecked, with its bronzed twentysomethings "surviving" for months in paradise, and there will be none of the designer sofas of the Big Brother house. Their challenge will be to live, eat and sleep for three weeks on a south London landfill, completing a series of tasks designed to highlight the true scale of what we throw away.

Rob Holdway, director of Brighton-based environmental consultancy Giraffe Innovation, who presents Dumped and set the challenges, says it was telling that most participants in the show, which was filmed last June, had packed for a long-haul flight. "A lot of people think they have to go to the Arctic or the Amazon to highlight climate change," he says. "But the reality is our desire for all the stuff we use is increasing carbon emissions. The ecology starts in our kitchens and rubbish bins."

On the face of it, the "dumpees," who also included a marine engineer, a champion snowboarder and a tattooist, did not seem like the kind of people who would feel at home surrounded by human detritus, but then who would? "I honestly thought I was going to leave," says Gardner. "I'd never even been camping before and I thought there was no way I could live on a dump for three weeks. It was awful."

It should be noted that dump in question was not all it seemed. Health and safety laws prevented participants living among the used nappies and syringes that litter real landfills. Instead, producers worked with the Environment Agency and the Croydon dump's operators to collect 1,000 tons of real people's rubbish, screened for hazardous waste, piling it up within sniffing distance of the real landfill.

Their aim was to replicate the rubbish that makes its way to the landfill sites that dot the outskirts of our towns and cities. Every year we generate 434 million tons of rubbish in the UK. Of all that waste, just 27 per cent is recycled, with most of the remainder ending up buried underground. "We like to say we throw things away, but there's no such place as 'away,'" says Holdway.

The Dumped producers selected a mixed bunch of environmentalists, energy guzzlers and the indifferent. For most, the sight of tons of other people's rubbish was a shocking one. "It was awful to see the things people throw away unnecessarily," says Gardner. "There were Coke cans and other things you can recycle, but also things of value like television sets."

Gardner admits to being one of the show's worst offenders. "I'd never done any recycling whatsoever," she says, "and when they asked me what my carbon footprint was, I didn't know what that meant." Whatever that footprint is, it is likely to be high -- Gardner goes on up to 20 flights a year for modelling trips and holidays.

Rob Holdway agrees and calls it "bizarre" that the UK has no real culture of recycling, especially when you compare our record, which is the third worst in Europe, to that of countries such as Austria and the Netherlands, where up to 65 per cent of waste is recycled. In some parts of the UK, that figure is as low as 6 per cent. "It's convenient for us not to deal with these things," says Holdway. "But it's got to change."

That change, says Holdway, will only come when we realise the value of what we throw away. Each of us blows an average of £424 on food that ends up not in our stomachs but in our bins (a shocking third of all food gets thrown away). Rotting leftovers do not make an appearance on Dumped, but Holdway's mission was to teach the show's participants to find value -- monetary and material -- in the tons of electrical, construction and household waste. With Holdway's help, they built devices including a shelter to live in, a composting loo, a bicycle-powered generator and a solar shower.

"Not only can you live ordinary lives off things that everyone else says have no value at all," says Holdway, "but you can even make high value items from them. It's a very powerful message".

Not all the participants were convinced. Darren Lumsden, 27, owns four cars, only recycles because his rubbish would not be taken away otherwise, and throws away his pants and socks at the end of every day. He left the dump on day three. "With me it's a bit like the smoking ban -- I'll only be green if I'm forced to be." Lumsden also says rumours that some local authorities only recycle half of what goes into their green bins reduce the incentive.

Indeed, earlier this summer it was reported that "co-mingled" collections, in which card, glass and plastics, often contaminated by food, are thrown together into recycling bins, is forcing many authorities to dump the stuff instead. Holdway says consumers and authorities have joint responsibility.

Ultimately, even recycling is not the answer. "It's only the least bad option," says Holdway. "Rather than spending billions getting to where Germany is now, we need to think how we can design out waste so we don't have to recycle." Each of us spends £400 out of our average annual food bill on packaging. "Some of it performs no function and then we stick it in the ground," says Holdway, "it's crazy."

So has the green message led the other Dumped participants to mend their ways? Despite already being something of a human recycling machine, Lawrence Rimmer, a biology student from Derbyshire, has upped his game since getting home, becoming a vegetarian in effort to reduce his carbon footprint. Selena Lethbridge-Carr, 47, has reduced her rubbish output so much that in the past six weeks she's dumped just three supermarket bags of rubbish.

For Sasha Gardner, "everything" has changed. "I look at the environment completely differently," she says. "I separate my glass, plastic and paper and take old clothes to charity shops. I have fewer baths and don't fly as much. And when I do temp jobs in offices, if they don't leave their computers on standby or don't recycle their paper, I say something. They probably think I'm really weird, but it makes me feel really good."