rubbish 1Hav­ing recently moved from a flat to a house, I am struck by the fact that my rub­bish gets col­lected from out­side my front door, that some­one actu­ally comes to my house to pick up my rub­bish bags to dis­pose of them. Since there is no rear access to the houses along my street, we are all obliged to bring our bin bags through our houses on the weekly col­lec­tion day and place them in the street out­side. And since these houses open directly onto the street, there is no buffer zone between the front of the house and the rub­bish bags, no space to estab­lish a dis­tance in the household’s rela­tion­ship to its waste. The bags remain of the house, sit­ting there naked and exposed, our pri­vate refuse in the pub­lic realm, with only the thin skin of the black plas­tic — the device for trans­fer from pub­lic to pri­vate — keep­ing the con­tents from becom­ing pub­lic knowl­edge. The num­ber of gen­eral bags reveals some­thing of the com­po­si­tion of the house­hold or at least the vol­ume of waste-producing con­sump­tion. Then on the fort­nightly recy­cling weeks, we learn more about one another as the pri­vate sits or quite lit­er­ally spills into the pub­lic. Paper, glass and plas­tic are to be placed in trans­par­ent recy­cling bags deliv­ered by the Coun­cil. Whilst recy­cling itself is widely viewed as morally good, the con­tent of what is recy­cled might be con­tentious. One of my neigh­bours is loathe to give any­thing away – all his paper is shred­ded. Oth­ers are less con­cerned as to who might notice how they live with beer and wine boxes stacked in plain sight and other objects con­spic­u­ously disregarded.

There is a grow­ing inter­est in the social sci­ences in waste includ­ing what counts as waste and how stuff, for exam­ple how food crosses the line from being food to waste (Wat­son and Meah, 2012) and pos­si­bly back again, and how this changes across time and place; the tech­nolo­gies of waste man­age­ment and their place in processes of con­sump­tion, for instance, the com­pul­sory dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of waste in many UK Local Author­ity areas; and even the ‘agency’ of bins (Met­calfe et al, 2012). Beyond what hap­pens on the doorstep, there is a ‘net­work of social and tech­ni­cal rela­tions’ and processes that ‘move things along’ and across this inter­face between domes­tic prac­tices and pub­lic arrange­ments (Chap­pells and Shove, 1999: 277; Greg­son et al, 2007).

How­ever, there is lit­tle in these dis­cus­sions about the work and the work­ers involved in mov­ing waste from one place to another. The archi­tec­ture of the street where I live (inhibit­ing the use of wheelie or other bins) means that rub­bish col­lec­tors must directly touch, smell and lift the bags – and at times the con­tents of the rub­bish. They not only use their bod­ies to haul and lift and walk to the next house but their bod­ies encounter the traces of things han­dled and dis­carded by other bod­ies – and they must live with some­times sig­nif­i­cant impacts on their health, as well as their own and other people’s every­day reac­tions to this ‘dirty work’.

rubbish 2 The rub­bish col­lec­tors in my town work smoothly. On the day I decide to write this post today whilst work­ing at home I am lis­ten­ing out for them but do not hear them until they are already far up the street. Still, it feels to me like a very per­sonal ges­ture that some­one is col­lect­ing my rub­bish. It strikes me all the more since I pre­vi­ously lived in a flat for many years and once I had placed my rub­bish in a com­mu­nal bin, I expe­ri­enced it as com­pletely dis­as­so­ci­ated from me. Now on rub­bish col­lec­tion days I come home to the plea­sure of see­ing that my bin bags have dis­ap­peared. How­ever, sev­eral weeks ago I saw that my bag had been over­looked, per­haps unseen behind the row of densely parked cars. I con­sulted the Coun­cil web­site and found a num­ber to call for ‘missed col­lec­tions’. After a brief con­ver­sa­tion the next morn­ing, I am assured that this will be reme­died and true enough, when I return home that day, my rub­bish is gone, fur­ther enhanc­ing my sense of this ser­vice rela­tion­ship as pro­foundly per­sonal and despite the fact that I have not yet spo­ken to the rub­bish col­lec­tors for my street. I’ll be sure to give them a gen­er­ous tip at Christ­mas though…

Chap­pells, H. and Shove, E. (1999) ‘The dust­bin: A study of domes­tic waste, house­hold prac­tices and util­ity ser­vices’ Inter­na­tional Plan­ning Stud­ies 4(2): 267–280.
Greg­son, N., Met­calfe, A. and Crewe, L. (2007) ‘Mov­ing things along: the con­duits and prac­tices of divest­ment in con­sump­tion’ Trans­ac­tions of the Insti­tute of British Geo­g­ra­phers 32: 187–200.
Met­calfe, A., Riley, M., Barr, S., Tudor, T., Robin­son, G. and Guil­bert, S. (2012) ‘Food waste bins: bridg­ing infra­struc­tures and prac­tices’ The Soci­o­log­i­cal Review 60: 135–155.
Wat­son, M. and Meah, A. (2012) ‘Food, waste and safety: nego­ti­at­ing con­flict­ing social anx­i­eties into the prac­tices of domes­tic pro­vi­sion­ing’ The Soci­o­log­i­cal Review 60: 102–120.