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Rubbish disposal and recycling
in the early 20th century

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My mother' childhood recollections of waste disposal and refuse collection mention that people 'carried' their dustbins out to the pavement for the dustman to collect. This struck me as unusual in that dustbins are usually rather heavy: During all the years of the twentieth century that I remember, dustmen came into properties (like the back gardens) to collect dustbins, and currently (2012) householders have to wheel their wheelie bins onto the pavement for collection. I wondered how it was that people in the early 1900s managed to 'carry' their dustbins out to the pavement.

My conclusion was that society in the early 1900s actually had very little to dispose of, and was in fact highly commendable in terms of its recycling.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer

• Probably most significantly, there were no bulky 'luxury' items to throw away when buying new: no televisions, no fridges or freezers and no washing machines or tumble driers. Accordingly there was none of the bulky packaging that accompanies such items when they are delivered new.

• Probably almost equally significantly, there was no plastic. Food bought in shops was weighed out at the point of purchase and put into paper bags for women to carry home in their 'bag-for-life-style' wickerwork baskets. The paper bags were either put onto the coal fired range which was burning throughout the year apart from in heat waves, or put out in the back garden for a weekly bonfire.

• When things broke, normal practice was to mend them rather than throw them away. Travelling tinkers would repair leaking pots and pans and even staple together pieces of broken china. Knife grinders kept knives sharp and other metal utensils were made to last as long as possible.

• Newspapers, once read were put to use. They were cut into squares and hung in the lavatory as toilet paper; they were used to light that ever-burning coal fire as well as the weekly garden bonfires; they were used to wrap up left-over food scraps for disposal; and - if there were still any spare - they were sold as wrapping to fish and chip shops.

• It was considered entirely acceptable for clothes that one set of children had outgrown to be passed on to younger children.

• Clothes were mended when they became thin or torn and when they could be mended no longer, the bests parts were cut out and used to make clothes for smaller children.

• Food was fresh. Although tinned foods were apparently around, there is no mention in my mother's extensive recollections of them ever being used in working class families. So there were no tins to dispose of.

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Did ashes from the coal fires make dustbins heavy or were they 'recycled'?

Compare the following ways of dealing with ashes, firstly in the 1940s and then later in the century.

The 1940s

In my family in the 1940s the coal ash and wood ash never went into the dustbin. We saved it and spread it on the garden. This was thought to improve the heavy London clay while also keeping the slugs at bay. We also took sacks of ash to our allotment to be dug into the soil, and this was common practice. Even soot from the chimney was saved for a year so that it lost its sulphur content and could be used for spreading around plants. People had done this for generations. Families who were not interested in gardening would knock on our door or come to the allotment to buy fruit and vegetables, or eggs from our hens in the back garden.

Peter Johnson

The 1950s-60s

In the 1950s and 60s we used to have two dustbins - one for normal rubbish (not much in that) and the other for the ashes. That one was nearly full and was pretty heavy.

Jill Seal

One key to the difference between these two statements is the date. The mid 1950s saw the end of the rationing and shortages due to the Second World War. People didn't have to find a use for everything the way they had done in the past. The other key could be the affluence of the household, and their interest in gardening. This is not to say that there were not a few families in the early 1900s who wrapped their ash in newspaper and disposed of it in the dustbin for the dustman to collect.

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More ways that minimised rubbish

So what went in dustbins for refuse collection was minimal; and very little went into landfill. If a large item had to be disposed of there was always the rag and bone man, dustmen would always take things for tip of a few coppers. This was a source of income for them because they invariably knew how to dispose of most things profitably. In my own lifetime, I remember when black plastic rubbish bags came in: there was industrial action by dustmen who considered that they were losing a source of income by not being able to pick over the refuse. I can't remember the date or the outcome. I think they got a salary rise.

In summary, my conclusion is that most waste for collection in the early 1900s must have been made up of only miscellaneous incidentals and food scraps - of which there would have been relatively few, because food was hardly ever wasted - see the page about food in the early 1900s. Larger items did occasionally get 'thrown away' as far as householders were concerned, but as they were usually recycled in some way by the rag and bone men or the dustmen. Such items seldom went into landfill.

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