On the Thursday 18th August 2022, refuse collection workers in Edinburgh started strike action as negotiations over pay and conditions failed. They were joined by their colleagues in other Scottish local authorities at various points over the next few days, including Glasgow (where strike action began on Wednesday 24th). The Edinburgh strike in particular gained national media attention, not least because it started in the middle of the city’s summer Festival programme, which brings hundreds of thousands of additional people into the city over the month.
The consequent (and almost immediate) accumulation of waste around on-street bins and communal bin stores has attracted a great deal of attention. Images of overflowing bins proliferate on social media and in news reports in formal media channels. If we let them, these pictures can tell us some important truths about two things: the role of refuse collectors in Scotland (and beyond), and our increasingly dysfunctional patterns of consumption and waste.
Let’s reflect on the refuse collectors for a moment. By withdrawing their labour, they demonstrate the centrality of their work to the functioning and health of modern cities. They are cleaners, essential works in the circular economy, public health officers. They allow us to distance ourselves from the waste we produce, while demanding nothing of us except perhaps a desultory attempt to separate the more obvious recyclables, hopefully giving them at least a quick rinse. We put the rubbish out on bin days – or whenever we feel like it if we live in areas with on street or communal bins. We bag it and bin it and leave it for someone else to deal with; lidded bins and opaque black plastic sacks mean we never have to look at the grand total of what we’re discarding. Only when something is too big to fit in a bin do we see it – an old mattress, a sofa, a piece of superseded technology, hard-to-dispose of white goods.
By withdrawing their labour, the refuse collectors have given us the opportunity to reconnect with our detritus. The piles of rubbish plaguing Edinburgh and elsewhere hold up a mirror to our habits. An informal waste composition analysis lays our daily lives on the dissection table.
Perhaps the first question we should ask is: how can an absence of bin collections over a less than two week period be so problematic? Do we really produce so much rubbish that we can’t cope if it isn’t almost constantly removed from our presence? Many places (including within Scotland) have waste collections that operate on a fortnightly and even four-weekly cycle – so surely missing two, or one, or no collections should be something we can work around?
In fact, closer inspection of the waste piling up in Edinburgh suggests that many people can deal with a short interruption to their usual waste removal services. A circuit round parts of Edinburgh on the second Sunday of the strike (28th August) showed several areas remained clean and orderly.
In contrast, the city centre is, as has already been widely reported, foul.
It is foul with the after-effects of a takeaway, disposable culture. City streets on Sunday mornings are often littered with the remains of the previous night’s over-consumption; these images, and others like them, are like a slow exposure photo of the same kind of waste, captured over a longer period. Rather than the Athens of the North, perhaps we should start thinking of Edinburgh as more like Pompeii, as bins and pavements are buried under a fallout of plastic bottles, styrofoam food trays, greasy pizza boxes and mixed material, non-recyclable, single-use coffee cups. If take-away drinks were only ever sold in re-usable carry cups, half of this waste would not exist in the first place.
There’s also some evidence of “broken window” syndrome. As the rubbish accumulates, perhaps people have fewer qualms about adding to it. The bin is already surrounded, so what does it matter if you add another black bag? Or even a bit of unwanted furniture, or some broken hoovers?
In fact, maybe right now is the perfect time to have a proper clear-out. You could get rid of that purple artificial Christmas tree that got broken on Hogmanay, but that you have managed to find room to store for at least the last 8 months …
Whatever we decide to do with our own waste, our accumulated waste reflects nobody but our accumulated selves.