Sunday, April 6, 2014

A potted (or binned) history of rubbish collection

I have lived in this house for most of my life. I came here when I was six days old. Seven years ago I left for a sojourn in Sydney's west, and now I'm back. And I'm pondering the changes in our Council services which have taken place over the years. It's a wet afternoon, and I can't get out and wreak havoc on the weeds in the lawn. Besides, the green bin for garden waste is full. Overfull. There are two bin-sized piles of garden rubbish either side of it and I think the only way I'll ever get rid of them is by a trip to the tip.

When I was a kid there was no such thing as a green bin. You had a traditional old-fashioned garbage tin of galvanised tin or plastic, which was emptied twice and week, and everything went in it. Lawn clippings, paper stuff, dog poo, glass bottles, food waste, you name it. You crammed as much as you could in there and if necessary sat on the lid. (This of course made the lids jam on the galvanised bins, and if they jammed too hard the bin men wouldn't collect them.) If you had a plastic bin with two clips at the side you smartly rammed a stick between the two clips so the neighbour's dogs didn't open your bins in the wee small hours and strew your rubbish all over the lawn or worse, the street. Many are the times I was embarrassed to see my used sanitary napkins, half-chewed, obviously with the best blood-soaked bits sucked out of them, in the middle of the street. Neighbours back then were a bit more lax about locking their animals up at night, I should point out.

Then in the 1980s or maybe the early 1990s Otto arrived. Otto was a big green bin on wheels and got emptied once a week by a lorry with a mechanical arm which picked Otto up and gave him a damned good shaking into a hole in the side of the tanker area. Again you shoved everything garbagey into Otto but there was the bonus that the dogs couldn't get at it as Otto was too tall. At first there was some snorting resistance to Otto, chiefly I think because the emptying wasn't as often and also because - don't mention the war! - Otto was a German invention. One wit sent a cartoon in to the local paper showing an orderly row of Otto bins, each one sporting a Hitler moustache. The editor published it.

Once people discovered dogs couldn't open Otto and display their rubbish all over the neighbourhood, Otto gained acceptance. Otto came with a small black (nameless) open topped companion for recyclable glass, paper and plastic, which was emptied once a month if the dogs didn't sort through it first. We were now instructed to put our recyclable rubbish into the little open-topped container, which would then be hand sorted at a recycling facility. Mum, ever suspicious, kept up her twice-yearly illegal backyard bonfire in a galvanised bucket, burning things like old bank statements and utility rates notices; she was worried someone may steal her identity. She had never put private papers in the bin. Mum was years ahead of her time :-).

With the new system, we were now forbidden to use our 'general rubbish' bin for garden rubbish. There would be a quarterly garden rubbish collection. You had to chop up your rubbish to a maximum certain length and tie it in bundles with a natural fibre string or twine which would be biodegradable. This was bloody pointless for smaller things like weeds; how do you tie up a huge pile of oxalis, each little weed about 15 centimetres long? What about grass clippings? We did what everyone else in our suburb did. Put them in a bin liner and into the general garbage collection.

Around about the turn of the century our Council upgraded its Otto system. Otto became known colloquially as a wheelie bin, because the new bins weren't German.

They introduced a new bin-based recycling system, with a large blue-topped wheelie bin for paper and a large yellow-topped one for plastic and glass. As a result, the size of the normal general rubbish bin shrank, but you can pay more for a bigger one. In the years since I'd come home as a tiny, black-haired wailing baby product packaging had increased to an insane level and landfill was becoming a serious issue. Those little black open-topped bins weren't cutting the mustard as people had much more stuff to put in them than ever before.

Finally we got green bins for garden waste, taking the number of bins you have to store at your place to four. The green bins would be emptied once a month, which was a huge improvement on leaving piles of twigs and branches, tied in twine, somewhere in your garden for up to nearly three months.

About this time I moved to western Sydney, where my Council bins consisted of a general rubbish bin and a recycling bin which took paper, plastic and glass all together. The general rubbish, into which I unashamedly put garden clippings as there was no green bin available at all from our Council, was emptied weekly and the recycling one fortnightly. Both bins were economy-sized. We didn't often fill up our general rubbish one but the recycling one was always filled to overflowing. Why the hell just about every utensil, tool, or piece of hardware you buy has to come hermetically sealed in plastic so tough it breaks your kitchen scissors is beyond me. But I digress.

Now I'm back 'home' I'm delighted that our Council has this year implemented a fortnightly service for the green bin. It goes out with the yellow bin and there's a handy if slightly complicated chart about all this stuck on the side of our fridge.

Given my fanatical and enjoyable return to working in a bigger garden, fortnightly green bins services aren't enough. I'm actually considering buying a little mulcher which will turn my garden shite into useful garden mulch. And I'm looking forward to having a compost bin again, as I get the guilts about chucking veggie waste out when it could be composted into something good for my garden.

As for those old plastic bins with plastic lids and clips each side, the bins of my childhood… you can still buy them in hardware stores. We have one in the garage used as an overflow collection for the green bin and it's full of dry leaves. When it's empty it can double as an ice bin when we have parties. I find it touching that, considering every Council in Sydney must use wheelie bins these days, there is still a market for these old favourites. What puzzles me is that the manufacturer never came up with a more dog-proof solution such as a built-in stick to go through the clips.

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