Ye Olde Waste Management

While watching (yet another) period drama, a scene caught my attention in which an aristocrat crumples a letter and throws it in the corner of the room. Of course, the maid collecting that trash would not make for riveting TV, so it isn’t shown, but I realized I had no idea what would have become of that letter after it was collected. I’d never seen any of the Downton Abbey staff take out the trash or Sherlock Holmes rummage through a bin in search of evidence. So what were they doing with their waste?

It turns out this question is being answered by researchers in “garbology”. The main figure in this research is Tom Licence, a professor at the University of East Anglia. He spends his free time on archaeological digs but instead of searching for fossils, he’s searching for Victorian trash, often in someone’s backyard where former residents buried any number of items. On his blog What the Victorians Threw Away there is a database of Victorian rubbish he and others have found. The items range from medicine bottles to broken ceramic dolls that look straight out of a horror movie.

These buried collections of trash are more common in rural areas of the UK where they had no access to organized waste collection prior to the 1950s. In the urban areas, London in particular, waste collection involved a surprising amount of recycling prior to the 1880s and 1890s, when mass production and disposable packaging became the norm. Dustmen would make periodic rounds to collect the garbage of city-dwellers – mostly ash from domestic fires and a few broken, unsalvageable items – which they then carried off to “dust yards”. In these dust yards, workers, often their wives and children, would sift through the waste. They collected any items which could be sold to manufacturers for reuse, such as glass or ceramics, and then moved the ashes elsewhere to be reused to make bricks or fertilizer. We don’t think of the early Victorians as environmentalists but we could stand to learn from their urban waste disposal methods.

Prior to the 1880s, most homes produced little to no waste. They took their own jars, bottles, and bags with them to the shops where the merchants would weigh the products for each individual purchase. Once industrialization allowed for mass production of pre-packaged goods, the newly-emerged middle class with their disposable income became eager customers. Items they’d previously spent time making at home could now be purchased pre-weighed, pre-packaged, and cheaply in the shops. This was also the time when public health and sanitation concerns became widespread, and people trusted the safety of these items. Many of the containers and packaging were not easily reused, and thus began our modern throwaway consumer society.

The aforementioned letter would have quickly biodegraded, but other items from that fictional manor home were likely collected in dust yards or buried in the home’s backyard for people like Tom Licence to dig up two centuries later.