26 April 2007

Weekly Rubbish Collection c.500BC-2007

Image: Rubbish  People throughout the country are today putting pegs on their noses and dragging out their pomanders as they prepare to remember the sweet(ish)-smelling streets of England that existed before the death of Weekly Rubbish Collection, which has passed away across much of the realm.

Weekly Rubbish Collection was born in Athens in about 500BC, when the sudden outbreak of democracy finally allowed the people of the city-state a chance to complain about the huge pile of rubbish that had been building up for the past few hundred years without fear of one of the tyrant's hoplites gently counselling them at spearpoint to "shut up and get back to the philosophising". Soon the world's first municipal landfill site was opened a mile outside the city gates, at last giving the Athenians a spot to dump unwanted gifts of philosophical tracts, spare Elgin Marbles and excessive packaging from pots of hummus.

Despite the Athenians' good work and numerous advances in waste technology by the Romans, the progress of rubbish collection was halted and then put into reverse by the arrival of the Dark Ages, so-called presumably because no-one wanted to put a light on for fear of seeing the great piles of ordure that surrounded them. By the late 13th century matters had become so bad in Britain that in 1297 a law was passed in England requiring householders to keep the front of their homes free from rubbish, which was marvellous news for anyone passing along the streets before the houses but not so good for anyone who happened to be playing in the back yard at the time.

In 1354 Weekly Rubbish Collection finally came to Britain, with each of London's wards employing "muckrakers" to rake rubbish together, load it into carts and remove it once a week (unlike today when muckrakers rake rubbish together, load it into their laptops and publish it in newspapers and on the internet every day). By 1407 householders were being required to keep all their rubbish indoors until the rakers could collect it and carry it off - in a move that would set a long-lasting trend - to Essex.

The glory days of Rubbish Collection, however, were ushered in by the Industrial Revolution - allowing Britons to produce such vast amounts of goods that it finally became possible for all strata of society to be able to afford to chuck stuff away. With the streets now filled with malodorous waste and malodorous freelance waste-collectors, in 1875 The Public Health Act was passed, requiring local authorities to arrange the removal and disposal of waste and requiring householders to store their rubbish in dustbins.

For more than a hundred years the system worked well. Each week the dustbin men would arrive at an ungodly hour in the morning and rouse the sleeping neighbourhood with an impromptu rendition of the louder bits of Stomp, before collecting up the rubbish bins and scattering a portion of their contents over the streets as an offering to the dusty gods.

Trouble lay ahead for Weekly Rubbish Collection, however. With new technologies and increasing wealth - not to mention supermarkets' desire to add value to their products by encasing them in more packaging than is required for the disposal of nuclear waste - came an explosion in the amount of rubbish generated by each household. Soon landfill sites were filling up, incinerators were overloading and councils were dragged low by the cost of waste disposal. In the end the only option open was to cancel Weekly Rubbish Collection altogether, replacing it with its younger (eco-friendly but rather less hygienic) sibling the Alternate Weekly Collection or AWC. With the AWC loudly proclaiming its green credentials to the people (and its cost-saving benefits to the councils) while merrily collecting rubbish one week and recycling the next and leaving the rest to hang around attracting flies, rats and tabloid hacks desperate for a scoop about what Z-list celebs throw away, Weekly Rubbish Collection found itself supplanted.

Weekly Rubbish Collection will pass away just as soon as there's no danger of its death harming any local election results. It will be cremated in a municipal incinerator before having its ashes scattered up and down the street outside your front door. It is survived by a surprisingly fat urban fox population, piles of bin bags on the pavement and a continuing unwillingness on the part of Brits to recycle rubbish anywhere other than their TV screens.