Footpath fossickers are inspired by both ethics and aesthetics.
EARLIER this year, Tania Lewis and her colleagues visited householders in Moreland, in Melbourne’s inner north, to ask about how they reuse hard rubbish.
Dr Lewis, an associate professor of media and communication at RMIT, happened upon a gem of her own – she observed a kind of “green materialism” at play.
She explains, by way of example: one of her interviewees, Mark, had picked up an old shoe-cleaning box, the sort you’d keep a brush and polish inside and put your boot on while you buff and shine. He repaired it and uses it, and also, daydreams about its history.
“He imagined the old Italian man who might have made it originally and used it through his life,” Dr Lewis says. “He loved the fact that it had been used before. He was very invested in that romantic ethic, the sense of having a connection with the material objects in our lives.”
She says people rummage through their neighbours’ refuse for many reasons, including frugality, sustainability and an opposition to throwaway consumer culture. But many of us also do it for the thrill and the pleasure.
“People often valued hard rubbish precisely because these objects had histories and lives before them; unlike new objects, which they felt were somehow sterile and alienating,” she says.
Dr Lewis is the co-editor of Ethical Consumption: A Critical Introduction, published in 2010. She says her research revealed another perspective on life in the suburbs.
“They’re often depicted as places of hyper-consumption. I wanted to focus on people who are doing quite the opposite. I wouldn’t call them alternative; they’re just ordinary families who’ve opted to live differently and who are very critical of mainstream approaches to consumption.”
There’s good cause to highlight our everyday thriftiness: it’s more common than you might think. A survey of households in Frankston, conducted by Dr Ruth Lane in 2007, found that two in every five had gleaned something from hard rubbish in the previous two years.
In another recent study, Dr Lane, from Monash University, recruited householders to track the things they put out on their nature strip. They reported that more than a third of the items were nabbed before the scheduled pick-up (the most popular were white goods, sports equipment, furniture, electrical appliances and kids’ toys).
She found that much more stuff is reclaimed informally than through the official collections. According to the Department of Environment and Sustainability, almost all the hard rubbish gathered by councils goes to landfill. Only 13 per cent, by weight, gets another life.
Despite this, lots of councils discourage scavengers, both professionals and amateurs. Many have switched away from scheduled pick-ups. Instead, you must book your own, once or twice a year, when you need it.
“Unfortunately, many councils have moved to make hard rubbish scavenging illegal and I think that’s incredibly short sighted,” Dr Lewis says.
“We need to encourage these forms of reuse and encourage people to reflect on what they consume, where it comes from and where it’s going at the end of its life.”
If you’re looking for the low-down on footpath fossicking, visit the Hard Rubbish Melbourne Facebook group. It has over 5000 members, many of whom post details of their finds and ask for tips on repairs and missing parts. They’ve also collated information about the timing and conditions of collections all across the city.
Anyone got a good story of finding gold? I picked a laser printer/photocopier five years ago, and after a simple, no-cost fix, it’s still going strong.