Have you ever been a scavenger?
Kids do it naturally all the time, just this week, as I took my classes outside to enjoy the record warmth, I was presented with all manner of junk. I received a lacrosse ball (approximately 5 times, as this ball was continually re-found, after I placed it near the door), a crushed soda can, some type of plastic plug, and a golf ball. Kids naturally find things, their imagination naturally assigns value to these objects.
I’m not a big scavenger at the age of 35, but I love value.
As I wheel my trash can to the curb, and lug my recycle bin, my mind begins to dance. Is recycling just a result of our somewhat environmentally conscious society? Or is there really money to be made? Who hasn’t dreamed of collecting aluminum cans, transporting them to the salvage yard, and leaving with cold hard cash?
If you haven’t I suspect its because you’ve never been to the salvage yard. I’ve taken aluminum window frames, copper pipe, old window weights, and a few appliances. I always receive a couple bucks for my troubles, which isn’t much, but considering I’d have to pay to trash these items, the payments are a bit sweeter. Historically speaking, I’m not the first person to profit from a recycling habit. Recycling and waste management has existed probably for as long as people have gathered in large permanent settlements.
Trash is part of us.
Our modern regulated system has simplified the process and eliminated a vast underworld of entrepreneurs. In the mid 1800s the refuse system was the domain of an underprivileged class that probably suffered greatly, but left us with some wonderful names for their work. In the book, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, author Steve Johnson provides us with an exhaustive list; “bone-pickers, rag-gathers, pure-finders, dredgerman, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers, and shoremen.” Ahh to be a shoremen or bunter, while out for a stroll, maybe even sighting a mud-lark, which sounds like a nice shore bird, what fun.
Their work was as colorful as their names, but much more unpleasant. To explain a few, the toshers waded through the mud and grim of the Thames at low tide, collecting scrapes of metal, while the mud-larks came along in their wake, collecting the scrapes the toshers viewed as not worth the trouble, mostly bits of coal, wood, and rope. The pure-finders roamed the city looking for dog waste, which was then sold to the tanners who used it in the leather making process.
What an interesting story especially viewed from the cleanliness of today, but horrifying it must have been then. Just like London in 1854, our present relationship with our trash can show us what we value and what is valued by others.
My most recent trash can contained diapers, cat littler, junk mail, and non recyclable packaging from the grocery store. Food scrapes are sent to my compost pile, where they are combined with leaves to make a fertile soil. Occasionally, when I’m renovating a house, my trash contains all manner of household debris. During these times of excess trash production, I must take care not to overload the bags or the can, as the trash-man was not impressed when I put out an entire can of heavy old plaster. He left it my curb, forcing me to dutifully shovel only a few scoops into the bag over the next several weeks.
Most times, my trash has little of value, but more importantly, shows that I had not purchased anything of value. On trash days, like any good rag-gatherer, I like to take a glance at the various bins by the curb. Some are piled high with toy boxes evoking memories of Christmas morn, while others showcase neglected and worn furniture. The presence of flies signifies an abundance of food scrapes. Trash is a part of us, but it really reflects our consumer culture. If you are wondering what happens to your pay check each week, simply take a look in the trash. You will surely reflect on items purchased and little used, their value not worth the price. Stay out of stores, reduce your trash, and watch your bank account grow.