All good things must come to an end, and so this post marks the final blog in our Life Before Plastic series (here’s part one, two and three if you’ve missed any). Speaking of endings, today we’re going to be looking at what happens to the stuff we buy once it’s reached the end of its lifespan. Rubbish might seem simple but one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure, and it’s not always clear what is or isn’t ‘junk’.
In 19th century Christchurch there were a few different options available for getting rid of rubbish. Animal bones and food waste could be burnt in the fire or sold to the glue works. Rubbish could be buried in the backyard or used to infill an old privy or to level uneven ground. Rubbish could also be collected, similar to modern times. In April 1862 land was surveyed and set aside for a rubbish dump and from January 1864 the Hadfield Brothers were contracted to collect refuse, slops, dry rubbish and ashes from bins left outside of houses. Prior to this, there was no organised, municipal collection of rubbish, and individual households or business had to deal with all their own trash. Whilst this rubbish collection was meant to be weekly, sometimes many weeks went by without collection, and there was little enforcement of making people use the collection service, hence why we find household rubbish pits with material dating later than the 1860s. Whilst rubbish collection eventually started to become more regular (we don’t bury our waste in the backyard these days…mostly) landfills themselves have problems of their own, namely that they contaminate the ground and that they eventually fill up. By the late 19th century Christchurch was facing these very problems, leading to the council investing in a rubbish incinerator known as the Destructor, which you can read more about here.
19th century rubbish, whether it was buried in the backyard or carted away to a dump, almost always ended up in the ground. And the same is true for most of the rubbish created in the 20th and 21st centuries. From excavating 19th century rubbish pits we know that a lot of the material buried in the ground doesn’t break down quickly; we often still find organic material such as animal bones in perfect condition. In the 19th century the rubbish being generated was far less than it is today, both because of a lower population and because there was less single-use packaging. These days it’s estimated that New Zealanders currently generate 734 kg of waste EACH per year. There aren’t any statistics to compare back to the 19th century to see how much more that is but given that 734 kg was already a 20% increase from 2015, it’s safe to say that it’s a lot more. It’d be nice to think that burying waste in the ground means out of sight, out of mind, but given all the recent problems with the Fox River Dump it’s safe to say that that isn’t the case.
The introduction of recycling to New Zealand in the 1970s meant not all rubbish was going to landfills. These days paper, cardboard, plastic, aluminium, steel and glass are all able to be recycled into new products and reused again. Yet with China refusing to take any more plastic waste, material that could be recycled is once again being sent to landfills. Recycling, in of itself, has problems. New material is still being created, not everything that can be recycled is, and contamination means even when stuff gets recycled it can still end up in the landfill. In some ways that’s where our 19th century counterparts were ahead of us. The system of bottle reuse for example, where bottles were commonly washed and refilled, meant that not only were new bottles not needing to be made (or at least not at the levels they would be if bottles were single-use), but that there weren’t the contamination issues that exist with modern day recycling as all bottles were washed in the process. Yet the 19th century system of bottle reuse had nothing to do with reducing waste and everything to do with cost.
Money. I think that if we’ve learnt anything over the past four blog posts it’s that money is everything. Our Victorian ancestors might have made things to last a lifetime, but that’s because things had to last a lifetime as they were too expensive to be replacing every year. And as soon as things went down in price because of technological developments, people started spending and buying more. The reason we have a plastic waste problem is because plastic is cheap to manufacture. And because it’s cheap to manufacture it’s used for everything.
It’s pretty easy to feel helpless when thinking about the state of the world. Just walking down the supermarket aisles reveals how bad our plastic addiction has gotten. And here at UnderOver we’re just as guilty- we use plastic bags for all of our artefacts and despite writing a blog on Kmart culture we still ordered plastic trays from them.
I think at the end of the day there’s two things we can take away from this blog series. Firstly, if money is the main driver for plastic consumption, then as consumers we can take profits away from companies by choosing to only purchase from businesses that are environmentally friendly. Secondly, we can remember that there was life before plastic. Plastic has only been around for just over 100 years, for the rest of human history there was no plastic. And whilst life might be a little bit less convenient without it, surely giving up some convenience is worth saving the planet.
Globe. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Press. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Lyttelton Times. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz