Hard rubbish

As unattractive as it may to some, others revel in salvaging, upcycling and recycling content from council collections.

It’s that time of year yet again. Strange collections of household items are beginning to appear on the verges and pavements of my Sydney suburb. The excitement mounts - it’s council clean up time and for me and my great mate, Katy, that means a time of frenzied recycling.

It’s not a time for us to clear out the garage or the junk room, or to filter through broken toys and brick-a-brac; rather, it’s a time of salvaging and collecting the amazing refuse of our opulent society. Our houses are made over twice a year with 'new' sofas, cushions, coffee tables and art works, all found, or made from, other people’s discarded junk.

Furniture becomes a fluid commodity rather than a heavy fixture and our creative impulses bubble over with all sorts of daring reimaginings: shoe horns become door stops; an odd metal thing, with a bit of work, becomes a fantastic light. As luck would have it, some feather down seat cushion inserts fit my sofa – itself a find from the last clean up. 'Gifts' are made to friends of items that seem more their style than mine and, inevitably, presents are received from friends knowing my passion for hard rubbish. The piles outside our houses are in a constant state of flux as we edit and re-edit our collections.

Matilda Campbell, Salvage Sisters

Suburban bower birds: Matilda Campbell, right, of the Salvage Sisters.

Texts fly between us: "Cane sofa on Cairns drive…..good nick, worth a look”. Images to back up the claim follow. "Be quick", a follow-up text reads - trucks are circling and, as hard rubbish aficionados know, the first rule is 'grab it now, it won’t be there on the return trip'. At this time of year, it's best to be prepared and always have the trailer attached to the car.

This is not a pastime for the weak or faint-hearted. Lugging things into trailers, up and down stairs or to the re-upholsterer can be wearing business. Nor is it a job for the bashful or easily embarrassed. Filtering through others’ refuse is not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but for Katy and me, the rewards outweigh any discomfort.

We're not alone – one truck is loaded down with metal of every description, another piled high with old TVs destined for some obscure recycling process. I spot a lamp shade I've needed for a while and whilst I check it for imperfections, a couple pull up and start to wrestle a large pot into the back of their Prius. We eye each other warily - but it turns out we are all after different stuff.

Until recently, removing anything from someone else’s rubbish pile was illegal where we live. New legislation has seen the gates open in some districts, so that turning one man’s rubbish into another’s treasure is no longer a criminal act. It’s a sensible move – those councils no longer need to collect and dispose of quite so much waste. Better for the environment and definitely better for me.

But, I wonder, are people really throwing this stuff to the rubbish or are they recognising the growing number of ‘garbologists’ like me, cruising the streets and reappropriating waste in colourful ways? Are we all using council clear up as an excuse to recycle, swap and edit our lives or are we just creating space for the latest modular sofa or the new unnecessary item straight off the ship from China? Judging by the piles to be found on the pavement, mushrooming every council collection period, I fear it’s more of the latter.

This is a strange phenomenon for a society apparently more conscious of our ecological foot print on the earth than ever before. There may be a strong argument for quality controls that stop cheap junk with built-in obsolescence from being sold in the first place, but, as the City of Sydney’s “buy nothing new in October” initiative has made evident, retailers must nurture business.

Surely our parents and grandparents were not as profligate as we are today. They had sheds and sewing rooms where things that were broken, out of fashion or no longer needed were fixed, remodeled and stored for use at a later date. They would buy a new element for the kettle and call the repairman when the three-year-old washing machine wouldn’t spin. They passed things down from one generation to the next and “made do” when things weren’t quite to their taste or standards. Do we really no longer have space or time for this, or is it that we have become so style conscious we have to have the latest in everything or be judged critically by our peers?

Perhaps council clean up is an apt time to ask ourselves if we really do need that new thing-a-me-jig - or would we be better off keeping our eyes peeled and waiting for the next hard rubbish night?

After all, you never know what might turn up - especially if your style is that of a bower bird.

Matilda and Katy are the Salvage Sisters.

Photos: Matilda Campbell's hard rubbish finds, now proudly on display in her home.