Municipal garbage collection as we know it has been pretty standard since the 1950s, and operated in similar ways (in fits and starts) in the larger cities of the US since Reformers started calling for the cities to be cleaned up in the late 19th century. Before the big trucks came around to empty your trash cans, you had to load them into your own truck and drive them to the dump or landfill to empty them. Before city and county landfills and dumps there was the rag and bone man and your own ingenuity.
The rag and bone man collected damn near anything you couldn’t reuse. In fact, many items had enough value to him that he would barter or pay for them. In exchange for sewing notions, pots and pans, and other household sundries he would take away your rags, bones, kitchen fats, ashes, old shoes, scrap metal, and almost anything else he or his employer could find a market for or fix and resell. Cotton and linen rags were sold to paper mills, woolen rags to shoddy mills or fertilizer companies or to be reused as “stuffing for upholstery, mattresses, and saddles.”Bones were also sold to fertilizer companies (because of their phosphorus content) or burned to make bone-black, a charcoal used to process sugar. They could also be made into buttons and handles, and they “yielded gelatine – used in food processing, photography, and the manufacture of sizing for coating cloth, wall coverings, and paper. Bones were also processed to produce ammonia and a tar used in the manufacture of black varnishes.” A vast number of possible reincarnations for just the two waste materials that made up the name of the rag and bone man.
But prior to the 20th century, Americans produced a fraction of the trash that we do now (which is about 4.5 pounds per person per day ). The reason for this is what Susan Strasser calls “Stewardship of materials”. Prior to the industrialization of the 20th century almost anything you owned was sure to have been made by hand – perhaps by you or a family member – and was therefore costly and hard to replace. Care was taken with possessions of all kinds to keep them maintained and repaired so that they could be in use as long as possible, and when it was no longer fit to serve its original purpose, it was repurposed. Take for example a cotton or linen bed sheet: “cloth was used, reused and transformed until it almost disappeared. Worn sheets were ‘turned’ – cut lengthwise down the middle, flipped, and restitched so that the thinning center was transferred to the less-used edges. When too worn or stained, sheets and other household fabrics like tablecloths or curtains were reincarnated as pillowcases, bandages, diapers, sanitary napkins, and washrags.” Only when beyond all household use were they bartered or sold to rag and bone men.
For what little the rag and bone man wouldn’t take it was up to you to dispose of. If it could be fixed you fixed it (put a new handle on that ax head). If it could be put to another use, you did that (tack up those empty feed sacks under the shingles on the new outbuilding). If it was well and truly beyond help you burned it (in your cooking or heating stove) if it was flammable and buried it if it would decompose.
Rag and bone men eventually disappeared because they were put out of business by changes in the way that waste was handled. Municipal collection (and increasingly smaller living spaces) meant that city dwellers did not hoard items for him anymore, they just threw them in the garbage can. If he caught a garbage can before it was collected he might pick through it, but in many cities and towns this was discouraged by the police. In the country he was also losing ground, in that case to the introduction of mail-order catalogs. “Farm families who could scrape together the cash might well opt for the nearly immediate gratification of COD at the nearest railroad station, ordering from a catalog that offered hundreds or thousands of things, rather than waiting months for the peddler to show up with his dozens of items.” As meatpacking operations consolidated into large conglomerates and the manufacture of fabric was moved outside the home to factories, even the rag and bone man’s eponymous materials were taken away from him. Fertilizer companies, handle makers, button factories, and other bone buyers bought their bones and fats directly from the meatpackers. Likewise, paper mills bought clean presorted remnants (instead of rags) from the textile mills.
In a 100% self-sufficient system – a closed loop – garbage would not be an issue because anything that came from your land could be reapplied to it. However, even the best of us are unlikely to achieve 100% self-sufficiency, so there’s bound to be some amount of outside input that will end up as outgo. What to do with it? You have to be your own rag and bone man. Step one: review the three Rs.
Reduce – Less input equals less outgo. Don’t buy it if you don’t need it. Buy the one with less packaging or see if you can get it in bulk and skip the packaging altogether (“More than 30 percent of municipal waste is packaging and 40 percent of that is plastic.”). Think long-term and get the one that can be repaired and reused instead of the disposable one (say, cloth napkins instead of paper ones).
Reuse – Get one or more extra uses out of it before you have to retire it. Cut up your holey jeans and use them to patch other pairs. Wash that sour cream container and use it to store leftovers.
Recycle – Recycle plastic, mixed paper, metals, and glass whenever possible. At some dumps this is free. Curbside collection will still cost you. In some states you get paid to recycle some of these things. If you have the space to collect a large amount you can take metal to private recyclers and get reimbursed per pound of crushed cans. If it is biodegradable you can (usually) compost or bury it. If it can still be used (but isn’t broken) you can donate it to a thrift store or have a yard sale.
I know there’s a lot of stuff going through our house that my grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t have to deal with (dead cell phones, broken plastic patio furniture, played-to-death VHS and cassette tapes, foam meat trays, etc.) and I can’t get much of a hint from the past about how to deal with that sort of thing, but I can look back to see how they dealt with things I still deal with (like fireplace ashes, rags, baling twine, etc.) and perhaps I can think up or research a few clever things to do with the newer items on the “garbage” list.
A few years ago I amused myself by creating a series of posts called “tasks” wherein I tasked myself with learning a new self-sufficiency-related trick or skill each month for a year. Now I think I will create a series of “rag and bone” posts to explore what can be done to lighten up those garbage cans. I can’t promise I will cough one up every month, but I will share my research whenever I encounter something I can keep out of the dump.
 Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. © 1999 the author. Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Company, LLC), New York, NY.
 Rogers, Heather.Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. © 2005 Heather Rogers. Published by The New Press.