Garbage disposal is a problem as old as mankind itself, or possibly older. While most translations of the Bible suggest God ‘rested’ after completing the Creation, some scholars render this as ‘phoned for a skip’.
During the hunter-gatherer phase, Homo sapiens simply left his rubbish behind: whenever the herd of mammoths moved on, so did our forbears, abandoning their makeshift homes in search of more fruitful pastures. This is no longer practical in modern civilisations, although it may still be the best plan for Stevenage.
Around 2,500 years ago, the Romans introduced municipal waste sites, but, in a typical public sector planning error, failed to take into account that the invention of the bin wagon was still some 2,400 years off. Despite coining a number of public information notices that remain in use to this day – including ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ (Trash goes out Mondays) and ‘Alea jacta est’ (No hot ashes) – the authorities failed to persuade citizens to walk a mile or more to the dump, even along a really straight road.
Trash technology progressed slowly. The Dark Ages were not only dark but also quite smelly. During the Black Plague, families would employ carters to remove their dead, but often found the neighbours filled the cart while they weren’t looking. In 1388, Parliament passed a law against fly-tipping, sneaking it through in an otherwise innocuous Bill outlawing dancing, music and sexual intercourse. Ever the innovators, the Americans enacted similar legislation 269 years later in New Amsterdam, although nobody took any notice and they had to repeat the exercise in 1866, by which time it was New York, confusing matters further. Based on calculations that a pig could eat more refuse per day than a family produced, swine were allowed to roam freely in the city streets, until they proved that a pig could shit more in a day than anyone could be arsed to sweep up.
The dustbin as we know it dates from the turn of the 20th Century, when waste disposal became a pressing issue due to the Industrial Revolution and weekend newspaper supplements. The dimpled trashcan was designed to evoke the elegant columns of classical architecture, but with a lid. This instant design classic starred in numerous feature films, including Night Owls (1930), where Stan Laurel’s posterior hilariously becomes wedged in one; Singin’ In The Rain (1952), where Gene Kelly dances with one; and Do The Right Thing (1989), where Spike Lee hurls one through a plate glass window. This may reflect the trashcan’s transition from bourgeois plaything to instrument of revolution, or just the fact that Spike Lee was too weedy to throw a fire hydrant.
In the 1980s, the Thatcher government undertook an epic struggle to modernise Britain. Ideology demanded a new kind of garbage container that would be unpopular, unwieldy and ugly, and would cost jobs without increasing efficiency. The solution was the wheelie bin: too tall to conceal behind your front wall, too wide to wheel through from the back, and too heavy to empty without mechanical assistance. Perfect! Unlike its metal predecessor, it was also sturdy enough to boost you over a high fence without doing a Stan Laurel, a benefit not lost on the nation’s burglars.
According to ecommerce giant www.ukwheeliebins.com, ‘DUSTBINS ARE NOW A THING OF THE PAST, DUE TO THE REVOLUTION THAT IS WHEELIE BINS’. In fact, the dustbin survives in two forms. Polished to a high sheen, it can be sold to loft-dwelling young professionals as an ironic design classic, referring perhaps not so much to its original incarnation as to its metaphorical descendant on their iMac screens. Jacques Derrida would have a field day. Meanwhile, its unluckier siblings find themselves conscripted into stage shows in which gangs of artfully scuffed teenagers strike them repeatedly with broomsticks in a grotesque parody of musical entertainment.
Having had their trashcans forcibly supplanted by standardised plastic replicas as part of the Conservatives’ drive to increase personal choice, citizens turned to the humble indoor wastebasket as a vehicle for aesthetic expression. These days the Garbino, from ultra-hip designer Karim Rashid, is the leading light of litter, though most people still go for those chrome cylinder things that the bin bags never fit in properly. But a mere receptacle, however attractive, can rarely satisfy modern refuse policy. ‘Waste separation systems’ offer a handy choice of compartments into which any item can quickly be tossed after a brief laboratory analysis. Fortunately, any errors are of little consequence, since the plummeting cost-effectiveness of recycling means the whole lot will probably end up in the same landfill.
In public places, function rules over form. Lamppost-mounted bins serve the triple purposes of rubbish collection, small business advertising and arson. As the average height of juvenile delinquents increases, local authorities raise the vessels further up the lamppost. Already, pensioners are often seen mounting each others’ shoulders to insert discarded Werther’s Originals wrappers into the elevated slot, while by night, due to the critically reduced bin–lightbulb gap, giant Mister Minit commercials are projected across the highway.
But the 21st Century demands the ultimate in performance. Engineered Safety Products of Richmond, Canada, sell garbage cans used in public areas around the world. Their products are minimalist in appearance: grey cylinders with a dished top, broken only by a small central hole designed to accept everyday litter. If users, for their own reasons, choose to deposit something more imaginative, the steel-shelled construction will safely accommodate up to 10lb of TNT. Bin that, Osama.
Around the world in a bin
- In Beijing, recycling bins in public spaces are fitted with speech synthesisers that thank users for helping to protect the environment, or tell them off if they drop the wrong kind of trash in the wrong bin.
- In parts of Denmark, bins are fitted with microchips that identify them to the garbage truck. Residents are charged for the total weight of refuse they throw out.
- In the US state of Ohio, locals calculate that the highest geographical point is a landfill, nicknamed ‘Mount Rumpke’ after the company that operates it.
- In Austria, packaging waste is reduced by selling milk from pumps to which customers bring their own bottles.
- In Brazil, 85% of aluminium cans are now recycled – a world record.
- In Argentina, so many people have turned to wasteheap scavenging following the country’s economic meltdown that a national support organisation has been set up to provide resources and business advice to ‘freelance recyclers’.
- In Britain, 422 people were fined by litter wardens in 2001. 300 of them were in the London borough of Wandsworth.
- Wandsworth Council are bastards.
- In Bangladesh and Taiwan it is illegal to give away plastic bags.
- In Antarctica, over 300,000 tonnes of rubbish has been left by explorers and scientists. There is no coordinated plan to clear it up.
- In Turkey, the standard method of waste disposal is dumping on open ground. In 1995, methane gas at a dump in Istanbul exploded, killing 39 people.
The Apple Macintosh, launched in 1984, was the first computer that allowed users to drag pictures around instead of typing commands. To delete files, there was a picture of a trashcan. Up to this point, the whole thing worked pretty well. Then somebody at Apple decided to kill two birds with one mixed metaphor, and assigned the trashcan to the floppy disk eject function too. So putting a file in the bin would delete it, but binning a whole disk would harmlessly pop it out. Who says computers are logical?
When Microsoft copied the Mac interface in Windows, they got around this by leaving out the disk eject function altogether. Users had to remove floppies manually. Unfortunately, Windows then had no way of knowing when a disk it was trying to read was no longer there, and would respond with the error message: ‘Drive A: does not exist.’ Tech support engineers had to be trained to resolve Cartesian metaphysical crises.
Later, it became possible to retain files that had been thrown away, in case users changed their minds (or had been meaning to pop a disk out all along). Microsoft highlighted this feature by renaming the trash ‘Recycle Bin’. This reflects the modern American concept of municipal recycling, where rubbish is carefully sorted, then left intact in case anyone wants to get it out again in 500 years’ time.
After a mere 17 years, Apple finally solved the metaphor problem in its new OS X operating system. The bin now turns into an Eject symbol when disks are dragged onto it. Just like in real life! British users also benefit from another correction. Rather than a picture of a trashcan labelled ‘Wastebasket’, they now get a picture of a wastebasket labelled ‘Trash’.
In the next version, users will have to drag a ‘Wheelie Bin’ icon through a narrow passageway to the edge of the screen, from where it will be collected at various unpredictable times with a lot of banging.