When it comes to saving the planet, we need to play dirty


Don’t rinse your plates before putting them in the dishwasher,” said Boris Johnson’s spokesperson, and then I sank to my knees. This wetness on my face, was it tears? I was shaking, and laughing, my hands reaching skywards in raw and screaming thanks, as I learned finally, how to save the world.

To my left, the city was flooding, cars wading through the dark water of drowned streets, and over there the path was littered with the corpses of bees, and in the distance fossil fuel companies were merrily going about their days responsible for over a third of all greenhouse gas emissions while billionaires popped to space for the afternoon. But here, on my kitchen floor, I was weeping with thanks. I can make a difference, I whispered, hoarse now, holding my ketchupped plate aloft. The future is mine!

Dirt is the newest environmental pawn, whether dried on lunch plates or collecting under fingernails. We are urged to avoid washing our clothes, instead invited to consider folding them into the freezer or spraying them with vodka, as putting them in the washing machine accounts for 25% of each garment’s carbon footprint. Ideas about hygiene are trickling down through cracks in the ceiling. Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher discussed dirt on a podcast last week, saying they only bathe their children when they look “physically grubby”. They said they hardly ever use soap on their skin, with Kutcher only soaping up his “armpits and crotch” while Kunis (love her) concentrates on “slits and tits”.

This is the kind of activism I can get behind, a glamorous sluttiness which allows more time lying on the floor scrolling through one’s phone, or staring with glorious mindfulness into the mirror at forehead pores and wanton eyebrow hairs, or walking barefoot across the garden’s slug-lawn cursing them with respect and glee. The relentless schlep from bed to shower, the endless lathering, conditioning, combing of wet hair, the hours lost sitting in a towel on the side of the bath as time and youth drips away – no more!

To stay dirty after a year of being reminded to sanitise at every doorway, being taught to wash our hands with the kind of fastidious care more commonly seen in a paleantologist brushing soil off a neck bone, to wipe down surfaces as if eliminating evidence, the idea of simply remaining unwashed, well. It feels terribly radical. A year ago the Atlantic coined the term “hygiene theatre”, discussing Covid-led cleaning protocols “that make us feel safer, but don’t actually do much to reduce risk – even as more dangerous activities are still allowed”. Gyms bleaching surfaces but not opening a window, single-use cutlery in restaurants where nobody’s wearing a mask – these actions which make many of us feel more relaxed returning to the world but offer very little protection from Covid (the chance of contracting it from a single infected surface is less than 1 in 10,000), are fascinating in what they reveal about our fear of dirt.

But as each of us attempts to “do our part”, adjusting the ways we live in order to help eke out humanity’s time on earth a little longer, it gets more and more complicated trying to work out what is useful and what is simply another type of theatrics. Research director Sam Dumitriu collated a series of news stories that revealed the environmental complexities of voluntary “micro-changes” along the lines of the plate-rinsing advice, and each one sent me deeper into a very particular doomy swamp soundtracked by a chant of “nothing we do does anything good”, over and over, the most depressing endless rave.

People complain about supermarkets shrinkwrapping vegetables in plastic, he points out, but plastic allows for longer shelf lives, which reduces food waste. The plastic bag tax probably led to more carbon emissions – you’d need to use an organic cotton tote bag 20,000 times to make it greener than plastic. Similarly, a switch to 100% organic food production in England and Wales would see an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Eating locally would have a significant impact if transport was responsible for a large share of food’s final carbon footprint, but for most foods, this is not the case. Dishwashers use less energy and water than hand-washing. Coffee pods are a more sustainable way of drinking espresso than nearly any other method of making coffee. While disposable nappies are worse for water waste, reusable nappies create more carbon emissions – any changes that would have a significant impact are in the hands of manufacturers and the waste disposal systems, rather than families. And on, and on.

We are very bad at balancing which of our many daily choices are worse for the world, and that’s not surprising – the information is opaque and shifting, and occasionally not in our interests to understand. But one change is definitely coming, I know because I can smell it on the wind. Chip grease, sweat, the wet pavement scent of unwashed hair, and the smells that jolt you into intimacy with virtual strangers in an Aldi queue – their bodies spreading into a hot day, their trainers asking for attention.

Comrades, join me. We will not rinse our plates, nor clean our clothes, nor wash the glistening stickiness from our cardiganed bodies, because we care. In this way we will save the world.