A new book arrived in the mail today, courtesy of my mother: Waste and Want: A Social History of Trashb y Susan Strasser. I’m only on page 7, and it’s already the most exciting book I’ve read in months. Come to think of it, it’s the most exciting book since the last book I read about trash. You could say I’m obsessed. And I could say I am what I eat.
Strasser’s other books have left her something of an expert on the history of housework (A History of American Housework), and in discussing the shift in society away from mending, recycling, and re-use and toward the throwaway society we find ourselves in today, she describes a number of household norms from the 1800s.
She describes how people would throw their garbage and dishwater directly out the kitchen window. She cites magazines that advised housewives to sort food scraps into pig and/or chicken feed, grease for cooking and soap making, and still-edibles. She talks about how scrap collectors sorted everything from fabric to metal to re-use and re-sell. And it all reminded me so much of the Wagenplatz.
Not having running water in the kitchen means we also don’t have a drain to carry our dishwater to a faraway treatment plant that we will never see. Yet we can’t pour our dish-washing water right out the window because the soap we use is toxic. (Was it already toxic in the 1800s, I wonder? I have read that it was once common to use hot water, lemon juice, and a bit of sand to clean dishes back in the day, so perhaps not. But don’t quote me on that.) So we walk a few extra meters and pour the dish water down the gully in the street behind our land.
Food trash we often toss directly out the window: coffee grounds blend into the dirt immediately, and other food scraps disappear into chicken beaks faster than you can say “compost.” (Our chickens seem to spend most of their time in the compost pile. Worms, bugs, food scraps—it’s a regular chicken smorgasbord and their earth-tiling dance keeps the compost aerated and decomposing healthily.)
There is plenty of non-organic trash that gets thrown directly out the window—pretty much anything you need to get out of your hands quick—but those items we usually end up collecting later and sending off to the dumpster 20th-century style.
As for re-using trash, well, I’d that’s what people known in German as “Messies” do best: reinvent the junk they just couldn’t help but fish out of the dumpster and store in their shed for 15 years until just the right re-use for it came up. Clothing is patched, curtains and table clothes made out of old sheets, crates re-thought as shelves, then kindling. (In a world without Ikea all furniture was once future firewood. Fuck you Ikea. )When one of us is in a rotten mood Scissors and I take stacks of plates to a nearby parking lot for a good smashing, though these days I’m saving the uglies to pound into colorful gravel for a little garden path.