gar·bage // <![CDATA[// (gärbj)n.1.a. Food wastes, as from a kitchen.b. Refuse; trash.2. A place or receptacle where rubbish is discarded: tossed the apple core into the garbage.3.a. Worthless or nonsensical matter; rubbish: Their advice turned out to be nothing but garbage.b. Inferior or offensive literary or artistic material.4. Computer Science Incorrect, meaningless, or unwanted data.
Garbage is a relative term.
In many countries, garbage is scavenged for anything usable, every piece of recyclable and reusable, resalable and marketable scrap is gleaned out and sold. People make their livings scrambling through stinking garbage heaps to find anything they can that will make them some much-needed money, usually not enough to make a living wage.
In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that “dust yards” were seen all over London, England. Carts went door to door collecting the ashes and dust swept from floors and hearths and all the household scraps that hadn’t been sold to the “Rag and Bone men” (who collected rags and kitchen waste –including bones, hooves, and fat to be rendered into soap and glue). Ever wondered why British garbage men are called “dust-men”? Wonder no more.
This “dust” as well as that swept from the streets went to the dust-yards where many of the city’s working poor spent their days working through the huge heaps of dust removing what was large enough to pick out by hand and sifting through sieves the rest. Metal, wood, bone, pieces of jewellery, cutlery, dead cats (for their pelts!), bits of coal, potash… a limitless list of things could and were gleaned from the Victorian dust heap.
Even the dust, itself had value.
“These Dust-heaps are a wonderful compound of things. A banker’s cheque for a considerable sum was found in one of them. It was on Merries & Farquhar, in 1847. But bankers’ cheques, or gold and silver articles, are the least valuable of their ingredients. Among other things, a variety of useful chemicals are extracted. Their chief value, however, is for the making of bricks. The fine cinder-dust and ashes are used in the clay of the bricks, both for the red and gray stacks. Ashes are also used as fuel between the layers of the clump of bricks, which could not be burned in that position without them. The ashes burn away, and keep the bricks open. Enormous quantities are used. In the brickfields at Uxbridge, near the Drayton Station, one of the brickmakers alone will frequently contract for fifteen or sixteen thousand chaldrons of this cinder-dust, in one order. Fine coke, or coke-dust, affects the market at times as a rival; but fine coal, or coal-dust, never, because it would spoil the bricks.” “Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed” Household Words, 13 July 1850
Dust heaps were such a money-maker that men could sell their heaps for thousands of pounds. Of course, they only made money for their owners. The workers still made starvation wages. Caught stealing anything of value lost you your job and could get you transported to Australia.
Even dog shit (called “pure”), night soil and urine had its buyers in old London. Used by leather tanners in their trade, they were commodities and was sold out the back door of homes, wealthy and not so.
For more information about Victorian London than you might ever need to know, check out the Victorian Dictionary, and immense glossary of all things Victorian London!
According to an article called “19th century London dust-yards: A case study in closed-loop resource efficiency”, by Costas A. Velis, David C. Wilson and Christopher R. Cheeseman:
“The emergence of lucrative markets for ‘soil’ and ‘breeze’ products encouraged dust-contractors to recover effectively 100% of the residual wastes remaining after readily saleable items and materials had been removed by the thriving informal sector. Contracting dust collection to the private sector allowed parishes to keep the streets relatively clean, without the need to develop institutional capacity, and for a period this also generated useful income. The dust-yard system is, therefore, an early example of organised, municipal-wide solid waste management, and also of public–private sector participation. The dust-yard system had been working successfully for more than 50 years before the Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875, and was thus important in facilitating a relatively smooth transition to an institutionalised, municipally-run solid waste management system in England…. In addition, there are analogies between dust-yards and informal sector recycling systems currently operating in many developing countries.”
In India, recycling or materials of all sorts is a growing and lucrative business for some. Whole streets have become devoted to the sale, recycling and resale of materials from cardboard, to plastics to metals to glass.
Many cities have, in the past, used garbage to create artificial shorelines for their cities. When I lived in New York City, I lived on City Island in the Bronx. Much of the island’s shoreline was expanded using the detritus from Manhattan and the Bronx. When I used to walk on the little beach at the end of my street, I used to come up with all sorts of treasures from the past. Shards of broken pottery and glass, porcelain door-knobs and dolls, and glass bottle-stoppers were just a few of the things I would find.
More recently, I would beach-comb up along the Upper Ottawa River where I would find arrowheads and sherds (well, one, anyway) from Indian pottery.
At the point in front of the old Hudson’s Bay post, I found pieces of broken pottery from both the old post, as well as the nearby former hotel, and pieces of old clay trading pipes, buttons, knife handles worn smooth from the waves…. and more… All someone’s long-forgotten garbage.
It makes me wonder if all the little treasures I possess will one day end up in someone else’s collection and they will wonder about who made them, who owned them, and how they came to be in the garbage…