With tales from old binmen and film archive that has never been broadcast before, this two-part series offers an original view of the history of modern Britain – from the back end where the rubbish comes out.
The first programme deals with the decades immediately after the Second World War. 90-year-old Ernie Sharp started on the bins when he was demobbed from the army in 1947, and household rubbish in those days was mostly ash raked out of the fire-grate. That’s why men like Ernie were called ‘dust’men.
But the rubbish soon changed. The Clean Air Act got rid of coal fires so there was less ash. Then supermarkets arrived, with displays of packaged goods. And all that packaging went in the bin.
In the 1960s consumerism emerged. Shopping for new things became a national enthusiasm. It gave people the sense that their lives were improving and kept the economy going. And as the binmen recall, the waste stream became a flood.
As the programme sifts through the rubbish of the mid-20th century, we discover how the Britain of Make Do and Mend became a consumer society.
The second programme deals with the 1970s and 1980s, when two big ideas emerged in the waste management industry.
The first was privatisation of public services. We meet Ian Ross, who made millions by taking over the refuse collection contract from the council that had once employed him as a binman. ‘It was scary’, Ian Ross admits, ‘but you have one chance don’t you, and you’ve got to take it.’
The other idea that emerged was environmentalism. Ron England goes back to the supermarket car park in Barnsley, South Yorkshire where he set up the world’s first bottle bank. ‘Everyone said I was a crank’, recalls Ron.
But the waste stream continued to expand. This was great news for the Earls of Aylesford. The present Earl shows how his palace was saved with money earned from the enormous landfill in the grounds.
This is the story of a society hooked on wastefulness – and of the people who clear up the mess.