Thank Your Local Scavengers

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Somewhere in the latter half of the 20th C. we got out of the habit of recycling. Recycling was positively normal before WW2. It’s just that the poor did it for the better off, or lazier.

Today, we’re expected to do it ourselves. But after two in the morning, through this bar zone come the fellows with their shopping carts, or just carrying a trash bag, the latter maybe on a bike. They look for plastic and glass bottles and aluminum drink cans left on the curb (or my building’s lawns) by drinkers, and smokers on break. They check the outside trash cans. Some brave souls flip open the lids on the dumpster in front of the karaoke joints, and climb in to see what’s been tossed there. There’s three or four that work the trash cans at Waipahu Transit Center, different nights or different times. (In Hawaii, there’s a deposit on beverage containers, to boot.)

This is an ancient task.

Sure, it’s never been a high-class activity, but it was always an honest buck (or shilling). Some working-class Victorians did it as a sideline, just keeping their eyes open on their walk to and from regular work, for scrap paper, rags, bottles, dog’s dropped teeth.

That’s right. Dog’s teeth were used like agates to burnish gilding on book bindings or door signs. Scavengers before the Age of Waste could recycle almost anything.

Scrap paper and cotton or linen rags were turned into new paper. Woolen rags were recycled into a wool called shoddy (thus, “shoddy” meaning something cheap and purposely low in quality) that clothed the impecunious. Bottle glass, just like today, could be remelted and remolded. A bottle in good shape would just be washed and resold as is. That’s because bottles were general purpose, rather than stamped with trademarks. Bones were burnt for pigment.

You can find in many places the article written on London’s Victorian scavengers. (I recommend Daily Life in Victorian London. An Extraordinary Anthology edited by Lee Jackson) Some scavengers waded knee-deep into the mud at dockside to pick up coal lost off the colliers, or occasional boxes fallen off other ships in unloading. Some haunted the trash dumps, looking for dead cats (the skins were valuable), reparable pottery, and all the rest.

Like those around us at night, some scavengers sold every sort of thing at the end of the day, and some accumulated, until they could bring the different buyers a dozen canine canines or a two-handled basket full of rags,or a whole sack of bottles. In the same way, when the Reynolds Recycling site– just next to the Transit Center, as it happens — opens in the morning, there may be those with a single bag of cans, or a pick-up bed’s full.

The real scavengers aren’t a bit like the street-sleepers. Some are a bit eccentric, like the one who walked so fast between cans, dug through like a dog, then handled his cigarette with that same hand. They have homes, often with chicken-wire bins filling with recyclables. They are doing us a favour, making up for our sloth. In this neighborhood, I nod hello to them, get a return, another regular fixture.

One night a scavenger came up to me hurriedly: he just had to share with someone his good luck of finding a silver ring dropped on the sidewalk, with a clear stone. Our conference resulted in the decision that a diamond would have been set in white gold or platinum, so this would likely be crystal, cubic zirconium, or white topaz. He was so chipper and happy with his luck that it perked up my spirits.

Now the one in my old neighborhood who would go by on trash day, rip open bags and scatter the contents in his search for aluminum cans — now he was a pill. But he’s the only one I’ve heard of doing that. He disappeared after a while, possibly due to someone sick of cleaning up. Besides, garbage men won’t pick up torn bags, so we had to re-bag and wait for the next pickup — which could be raided again. Some trash was getting very old thanks to this guy and someone may have gone off on him.

So, on the whole, let’s hear it for the scavengers. Hand one a bottle today (contents optional).

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