Why I Like to Look at Rubbish

People often ask me why I spend my time rifling through other people's rubbish. I don't need to, financially I'm in a pretty good place. It may also look like a bit of waste of time. I get that. Finding, cleaning and rehoming all of this stuff takes time, time that I’m often a little short of with a small person in the house. There isn’t always a noticeable payoff for the time spent, we give a lot of stuff away, or barter it for something else that is not of equal value to the time spent sourcing and repairing it. It would be easier and more lucrative to just get a job, or to spend that time relaxing. And then there’s the suggestion that it’s just a plain icky thing to do and that there are better ways that I could be spending my time. I get that too. Sometimes looking through piles of trash you do stumble upon pretty gross stuff. So I’ve been really thinking about my motivations and trying to crystallise for myself what the driving forces are behind the choices that I’m making.

First I’d like to say what this isn't. The urge to examine, resurrect and rehome trash isn’t belated adolescent rebellion, it isn’t born from an insecure desire to lose myself in the zeitgeist and it's not an attempt to grab the high moral ground at another’s expense. It's self-driven and self-derived. I’m doing this because it interests, delights, troubles and moves me. At this point in time I can’t not do this.

I believe that bearing witness to some of the shadow side of society is a good way to spend my time. I understand profligacy, I’ve personified reckless excess for so much of my life. Many of my friends and family have nudged, guided and encouraged me away from improvidence, tried to show me the importance of stepping back from consumerism and of choosing quality when purchasing. They have modeled the elegance of timeless fashion and reminded me how insubstantial and transient dominant ideologies can be. All of these true things that they taught I’m now understanding in my heart through this activity. Every week when we spend our one day without our little man mining the excesses of society for things that we feel we can find a home for, my disquiet at the waste is uncomfortably offset by awareness of my own carelessness. Not just past carelessness, but current carelessness too. I’m in no position to preach to anyone about how they should spend their money, treat our earth, use their goods, or each other. What I can do, and feel in integrity doing, is present tableaux of waste, neglected beauty and lost treasures and hope that shining a spotlight on moments of madness will be one factor among many that may contribute to changes of heart and behaviour. When we can examine the things that we prefer to ignore, the things that we think are icky, we have a far better chance of addressing inadequacies and inequalities and changing the fabric of our society.

There is rising concern about how ineffectual conscious consumerism and the zero waste movement are as models for significant change. Small decisions made by individuals to eschew a straw, purchase organic, or rifle through rubbish to salvage treasure aren't going to shift things quickly enough. That is clear. Alden Wicker wrote about this beautifully in her piece "Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world". For the most part I agree with her. But from a personal perspective, in our home and with our friends and family, I feel it is important to work towards a personal culture of awareness of and appreciation for these wondrous and often strange gifts that have been wrought from the earth for our use and diversion. They're all of them, each and every one, an embodiment of so much thought, creativity and hardwork. Of blood, sweat and tears. If we've made them then the least we can do is examine, honour, value and learn from them.

Most weeks we’re sure to find the following items: forgotten toys, barbeques past their prime, suitcases with broken zippers, mildewed books, last season’s clothing, “reusable” shopping bags, perfect baby clothes, fridges missing shelves, renovation offcuts, water damaged chipboard furniture and cabinetry, bedside table lamps, underused exercise equipment, out of fashion cushions and rusty bikes. In winter we find fans and in summer we find heaters. These abandoned artefacts are cautionary tales for me and I’m both appalled by and thankful for their reminders to only buy what is necessary, to buy well-crafted “forever” items that are ideally second hand and to treat my possessions with respect. Looking at rubbish gives me a visceral sense of the size of the challenges that we face at the moment that I knew intellectually before. It’s easy to file a concept away and only examine it at your convenience, and it is rarely convenient to do so in the average busy life. But it's hard to ignore something when it takes up residence in your body as a permanent energy. Verge collection keeps this awareness alive for me.

When I was a little girl there was a man called Mr Bickley who lived across the road from us with his wife Mrs Bickley. The Bickley's house smelled like sugary tea and biscuits and I loved it there. I don't know how old he was, from my current perspective probably not very, but when I was five Mr Bickley seemed very, very old. On Sundays Mr Bickley didn't go to church, but he observed a very real sort of reverence for his community and the earth. Mr Bickley would go for a walk through the neighbourhood picking up rubbish. At first he did this with my big sister Tania and with his dog, Pretty. When my sister got older and Pretty passed away he took me and one of our neighbours' dogs. He went first thing in the morning so that my parents could have a lie in. We'd wander through the streets picking up rubbish and taking it to bins. Mr Bickley's devotion to cleaning up the planet was perhaps more striking because this was close to 40 years ago, well before the relative mainstreaming of environmental concerns. Back then few people gave it consideration. Over the years I've thought of Mr Bickley often and always with such respect for his kindness and nobility of spirit. Verge collecting on Sundays with Si is a familiar activity for me, because it echoes those earlier Sundays with that humble, generous spirited old man who always had time for a chatty little girl and who quietly set about making things better. Mr Bickley was like the hummingbird from the beautiful story that Wangari Maathai told in the movie "Dirt". He did the best he could. I remember him with so much love every time we hit the road for vergeside pickup.

Other than a brief flirtation with the flower power aesthetic and an ill-advised period of wearing bindis back in my uni days, I don't look like a “hippie”, or any other counterculture "type" and perhaps that has a purpose here. We spend a good deal of time profiling each other, drawing comparisons with previous experiences and reaching conclusions about who we all are based on shibboleths and costumes. It's lazy thinking and thinking that at its extremes can lead to prejudices of the worst kind. But it's also how we create ourselves as human beings and absolutely necessary for our survival. Constant sifting and categorising allows us to build on previous assumptions. Without it we would all be in the naive, open, over-stimulated state of newborns. It’s necessary to be able to file some things away as “known”. I see this process so clearly in our 3.5 year old. He’s searching for certainties, demanding steadfastness of experience, uncomfortable with things that break the mould of his new understandings. A degree of dependability enables him to move forward and explore new things, building on previous knowledge. It’s a balancing act. Too much rigidity fosters smallness and inflexibility, too much randomness and we may become frightened and insecure. Neither of these are foundations for creativity and problem solving. And creativity and problem solving are fundamental to resolving the biggest issues facing humanity today. It's easy to calcify around our stories, to start to view tendencies as certainties and perhaps to look less intently at the things that we believe we have seen and understood before. When a backpacker with conviction climbs into a supermarket rubbish bin to rescue wasted food, it isn’t entirely unexpected, so perhaps it can more easily be ignored or written off by people uncomfortable with an act like that. When a suburban mum nervously clambers in after her maybe the story is a little more confronting to her peers and warrants another glance. I hope so. But clambering into the bin also helps me to tap at the shell I've constructed around myself, to stretch beyond my comfort zone and to confront my own stories about who I believe that I am.

There's a growing movement to embrace the "5 Rs" - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle, in that order. Zero waste lifestyles, conscious consumerism, researching and then choosing cradle-to-grave items, these decisions are important and it is heartening to see the growing interest. But it's also essential to remember that we're not operating on a level playing field here. "Ideal" choices are simply not possible for a lot of people. So many are living lives that are cash, time, health or security poor and sustainability issues are unlikely to be a priority in the face of any of those shortages. Paying a premium for an item that is more durable isn't going to be given precedence over meeting the monthly bills. That isn't to say that abundance begets sustainability, far from it. So many of the thrifty practices that I'm clumsily trying to encode into my life these days are born from necessity for a lot of people. I guess what I'm grasping for here is that I've noticed a good deal of discussion and frustration about how people are living and consuming, but I believe that what we are facing here is far richer and more complicated than a binary model of good and bad can encompass. The fact that I can take the time to hammer this out and that the spelling is OK would suggest that I had the luxury of a good education, that my life is safe enough and free from need enough for me to spend time pondering the importance of these issues and that I feel empowered enough to be able to make some small changes in my life and engage in this discussion. From the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs I’m at least a couple of rungs up the ladder. If anyone is responsible for changing behaviours and moving towards a less destructive way of inhabiting the world it's people like me who have the luxury to do so. There are people who we all applaud who are moving boldly and bravely towards solutions and whose determination and creativity we hope will significantly change all of our futures for the better. We don’t all need to be those people. But I do believe, as Elizabeth Gilbert so eloquently said, that “Those of us who are warm and dry and safe and well-fed must show up for those who are cold and wet and endangered and hungry.” Gilbert was referring to the refugee crisis in Europe and probably the best way for most people to "turn up" in a situation like that is to donate money to the people and organanizations who can get it to where it needs to be, if you can afford it. But perhaps turning up in a more general sense can also be as simple as gently and lovingly modifying our own behaviours so that the resources that we consume are increasingly in balance with what the earth can support. Verge side collection is one way that I choose to live this, when I can. The "when I can" is important because when life gets hard, and it does for everyone, you often have to soften around your "shoulds". Even relatively simple tasks like composting food scraps can feel insurmountable when you've just lost a loved one, your baby doesn't sleep, or your heart has been broken.

I've only got one shot at being Finn's parent and I want to savour it. I’m not making claims here about how one should parent. Of course there are parents who parent beautifully and hold down full-time jobs, or whose kids are in daycare and love it and so many other variants on the theme. We all know that. I’m talking about what I want, what my preference is. And if I’m fortunate enough to be able to set up a life that allows me to be with Finn for most of the day then that is my preference. This is stuff that I can do around that and that I enjoy. It may be a cumbersome and time consuming process, but I can do it at my pace and I can weave the sorting, sifting, cleaning, resurrecting, posting and bartering around my little boy’s sleeps, meals, snacks, highs and lows. It’s also one small way that I can contribute to the finances. It doesn’t bring in much, but it does contribute. Each time we turn trash into food with a barter (there's a very active bartering community in Fremantle where we live) it saves us buying that item and it also saves the person who is bartering with us from spending the full price to buy what we are offering. I feel good about that.

We find a lot of things that we can use for ourselves and that also save us money. Building materials for renovating the house, wheelbarrows, shade cloths and pots for the garden, shoes and clothes for all of us, toys for Finn, books that we can trade for vouchers, give as presents or read ourselves, endless furniture to make life more comfortable and organised, linen, rugs and blankets to make life more snuggly, things that sing to the soul and make life richer and more beautiful. I can’t easily measure how much we have saved by finding stuff that other people don’t want, but it isn’t insignificant. I have a different relationship with each of these found items than I would with something purchased from a shop. For the most part I remember the house where we found it. I remember the moment when we discovered it and the mixed feelings of delight and incredulity. When I wander around our house and my eyes rest on all of these found things, or I see my son at the beach with found board shorts, poncho, bucket and spade it pleases me in a way that something from a shop doesn't. All of these treasures are pregnant with story for me and I’m glad to have them in my life.

We try to rehome based on where things belong, rather than maximum return. When I can give discarded craft things that would have gone to landfill to a daycare instead it feels really right. I have the satisfaction of knowing that those things ended up where they were supposed to and the giving embeds me a little more in my community. I love the connections that are emerging from this process. Rehoming and bartering is forging new relationships and discussions for me that make every day richer and more lively. The people that we meet, both in the community while we're rehoming and on the streets while collecting, are so much a part of this process. There's a cheekiness, irreverence and canniness to many of our fellow collectors that I just love. There are the copper guys who snip the cords off broken electrical equipment (and sometimes working goods too - grrrr) and then strip out the copper and turn it into cash, the coffee guy who knows the ins and outs of Nespresso machines and fixes up the superficially broken to sell at a local market, people who collect everything from clam shell pools to antique wooden rice carriers to sell on Gumtree. Some collect treasures to sell at markets and then donate their profits to a charity. We share stories about our favourite finds and tips on what's of value and how to sell things. Old timers who've been doing this for decades take you under their wing and give you guidance, or offer you things that they've found that they don't have room for in their car. Young people leaving home for the first time move from pile to pile with their parents looking for things to set up a sharehouse with. And it's not just the people on the streets, it's also the people in the houses, the people who are piling the unwanted things out in front of their homes. For the most part they're delighted when someone claims their stuff and saves it from landfill. Most of them put it on the verge hoping that it will find a home before the end of the weekend. A few will even take anything that is left to a charity store rather than see it go to waste. It is easy to judge the waste and the people behind it, I fall prey to that emotion regularly. But what this activity has taught me is that most people want to do the right thing. The impulse may not always translate into actions that reflect that, but it is there.

I love the surprise of this process and the glimpses into other people’s lives that it offers. How can you predict that this weekend you’ll find an early model Roland synth in perfect working order, or a collectable Corgi 1960s toy Batmobile? That if you dig down past the damp clothing you’ll discover an iPhone 6 plus that works perfectly but needs its screen replaced, or hiding behind that box there will be a Bernina sewing machine? And there is something more subtle and fragile that we also have the opportunity to witness. From the things that people throw out we can start to weave stories. We sense when someone’s daughter has left home, or a father has passed away, when children have outgrown their stuffed toys, or a couple has divorced. These outgrown and outlived things remain like a shed snake skin. Often they're destined for landfill and remain there as a whisper of that transition, but some things will be taken by collectors like us, some will be diverted to a tip shop and some will be recycled.

All this stuff that we unthinkingly cast away as trash is in many ways extraordinary. Rubbish isn’t rubbish, it's all earth and stardust (to paraphrase Joni Mitchell) and this earth and stardust has been wrought into such remarkable stuff. The things that human ingenuity has crafted to facilitate and amuse may often be short sighted. They so often pollute our waterways, litter our landscapes, endanger animals and disrupt the delicate balance of our very bodies. Too often they are made by children who we should have protected, or have produced waste in the making that puts communities at risk. Nothing can justify any of those effects. But these terrible, selfish, curious creations that litter our world fill me with both despair and hope. Why I despair is obvious, but the hope is that there’s a chance that our shrewdness and genius may outpace our appetites and that we may learn to be more balanced in our interactions with the earth and each other. I’m far from a techno-optimist, but I’m a cautious techno-hopeful and when I look at the things that we’ve learnt to do and make as a species I can’t help but hope that there are people alive today who are standing on the shoulders of flawed giants and, having learnt from their predecessor's errors and genius, may revolutionise the ways in which we create moving forward.

In “Trickster Makes This World”, Lewis Hyde examines the role of trickster figures like Loki, Coyote, Hermes, Maui, Krishna, Monkey, Anansi and Inanna in disrupting culture and “muddying high gods.” High gods could be seen as the corner stones of society, the things that we absolutely know, until we don’t. And trickster is that bothersome boundary-crosser who is paradoxical, playful and mischievous. He’s not easy to be around, but he’s essential to the work of creation. Every great change and leap forward that we in retrospect applaud was uncomfortably disruptive and an embodiment of trickster boundary-crossing energy when the shift began. Trickster is absolutely essential to change. Without that disruption we’re all in an echo chamber perpetuating the beauty and error of the present eternally. I’m making no claims about the impact a small exploration of a bin or a verge side heap is going to have on our culture as a whole, but from a personal perspective making that step is very important to me. The older I get the more I’m questioning these arbitrary “certainties”, these “high gods” that we live with. Like the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong or not nice about looking at abandoned things of value on a verge, or being looked at while looking at rubbish.

These are a few of the reasons that looking at rubbish has become so important to me, but there's one last reason, perhaps a little weird, that I value this process. I find it romantic. Verge side shopping is the equivalent of our date night and I cherish this time spent alone with Simon. We drive around listening to music and talking about dreams and ideas. We unpack the week and plan for the future and we mine for gold together in these liminal spaces. We get excited over the broken body of a chair that we plan to resurrect, see the potential in some discarded light switches or an old terracotta pot. I fall in love with my man over and over again and relish his resourceful, irreverent, creative ways. The time we spend together doing this will always be precious to me.

I'd like to offer profound thanks to my friend Benedict Noel for creating the website www.vergeside.com.au that we use to keep track of upcoming council collection dates. Benedict created the site as a community offering and I'm grateful to him for free access to this resource and for being an all round awesome guy. If you use Benedict's site and find things of value on the verge as a result I'd strongly encourage you to buy the man a beer as a thank you (see the link on his site).

Happy hunting lovelies,

Suzanne Cole