About twenty-five years ago we were introduced to the idea of ‘recycling’, which was a fancy new word for the government doing what our forefathers had done themselves for centuries. Basically they took old stuff and made new stuff.

Presumably it had become necessary because we no longer valued old stuff and were quite happy to shove it in the bin. There were better things to do with our time. We couldn’t be bothered to make new stuff out of old stuff because you could get a Chinese man to make the new stuff from scratch and anyway, Eastenders was on.

In the olden days, you would re-sole your shoes from an old bike tyre like Robert Carlyle in Angela’s Ashes. You would make a trough for the cattle out of an old bath. You would carefully fold brown paper from the baker’s shop and make jackets for your school books. (Do they still do that? Very strange behaviour, surely.)

Let me admit from the outset that I don’t fully understand recycling. When I was ten and under the forgiving watch of Mrs Johnston – a teacher very much ahead of her time - I made a papier maché container by slathering it around a two-litre carton of milk. The point was to illustrate the benefits of re-using things, the carton in this instance a mould to be used repeatedly. Except that I papier machéd the handle too and declared that the ‘mould’, now trapped, was to stay in for ‘extra strength’. I had, not for the last time I hear you say, entirely missed the point.

Here we are on the other side of the new millennium and we’ve scaled it all up. We’ve called in the special trucks. We’ve trained up our binmen, now ‘refuse collectors’, and made life a whole lot more complicated for them. We’ve ‘gone green’ and made millions of supergreen recycling bins, which are blue - another thing I’ve never understood. Like everything else we’ve decided the solution is more government, bigger government, fussier government, European government, and we’re sifting and sorting and cla’ing about through our rubbish in complete acceptance that this is now just part of our modern lives.

Take my weekend trip to the dump - sorry, ‘recycling centre’ - for example. There was a man in a hi-vis jacket there, not in Fermanagh I should make clear, who had assumed a role somewhere between Swampy and the Gestapo. He was guarding a skip reluctantly marked ‘general household waste’ when a middle-aged woman in a floral dress ventured meekly towards him, well out of her depth. She proffered an old board game for his inspection, the most convoluted and diversely-constituted board game ever conceived. “Plastics over there!” he barked. “…And that bit’s cardboard – over there!” “Metals!” he exclaimed, pointing at some tiny markers, “in that one at the back!” “…And those….” – ruminating over five small marbles – “Soil and Rubble!”

The poor woman smiled weakly in a sort of Church of England way and set about distributing her apparently valuable aggregates to every corner of the concourse.

And do you know what they do with it? I’ll tell you. They pile it onto huge ships and send it off to China. Well, some of it anyway. Is that better than sealing it up in a big hole in the ground? There is something satisfyingly neat about the old dump at Glassmullagh. All you can see now is just a field, with a few small vents the only clue that it conceals many generations' worth of life's detritus.

I was thinking about this earlier in the week when Hugh Firmly-Whippingball, or whatever he's called, was thumping the table about our colossal waste of food in his latest television programme. He showed us mountains of parsnips, looking perfectly parsnippy to me, that had been rejected by a supermarket. Too ugly, too wonky, too hairy, too fat, short, skinny, soiled or sullen. They seemed to be the rejects from an episode of Britain’s Next Top Parsnip, to which only the most sparkling and glamorous of parsnips need apply.

I’ve always harboured an aversion to waste, whatever my misconceptions about recycling, and this touched a nerve. Waste-not-want-not seems a very basic cornerstone of our upbringing, requiring no further explanation than the famous starving children in Africa who 'would have loved them peas’.

By the same measure I can see that it’s a bit de trop to expect a newly-blown glass bottle every time I fancy a Coke. Or to expect some fresh Norwegian timber to be pulped when I get a sniffle and reach for the Kleenex. And if you think about the sending of waste to China, it does kind of make sense when the ships have to return anyway, having dropped off containers full of new stuff, which they previously made out of our old stuff. Besides, this sort of trade is making China a fully developed country. Generally speaking developed countries are cleaner countries, and, parsnip snobbery aside, they mass-produce food in ways that are much better for the environment.

So I’m reassessing my thoughts on recycling. The key seems to lie in an understanding of scale, and the cumulative difference that the infinitesimally small domestic sorting can make to how we collectively use the world’s resources. No doubt the system is imperfect and can at times seem like contrivance. No doubt few are as dutiful as that woman in the floral dress, but the beauty of Fermanagh’s ‘commingled’ blue bin system is that you don’t have to be. Maybe Mrs Johnston was right after all.