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.