In one of her early songs, Maria (or, rather, Marysia) Sadowska mocked adults who discourage their unruly offspring: “Serves them right! They’ll be sweeping the streets when they grow up”. Work involving rubbish – brooms, dustpans, moving bins out in front of the building ready for the dustcart to come – contradicts the aspirations of the ‘decent citizen’. This provides the most convenient starting point to explain why waste is an attractive field of research for cultural scholars – it is a taboo that ‘normal folk’ reject for being abnormal and undignified.
Combining the imagination of the humanities with social-science techniques, cultural scholars enjoy examining things that make others hold their nose or turn a blind eye. Waste undoubtedly numbers among the products that bear uniquely human hallmarks. Cultural scholars interpret all human products unswervingly, including those that academia describes as abject (i.e. repulsive, inducing feelings of disgust, and – unfairly – marginalized). Zygmunt Bauman transformed rubbish into a vehicle for pondering miscellaneous phenomena of the postmodern world, in which redundant, waste people swarm on a backdrop of junk contracts and junk food. Paradoxically, his thoughts on the human condition in Wasted Lives could soon affect those selfsame cultural scholars, since they have been left off the ministry’s draft list of scientific disciplines.
The public’s growing interest in waste disposal and recycling practices is proof of a gradual reversal in the trend of ignoring them. I researched sanitary culture intensively a decade ago. Since the topic has now caught up with me again years later, as a pioneer, I am glad that the formerly fringe interest in rubbish is now moving to the fore. Breaking the taboo of bins and treating waste seriously is a first step towards paying due attention to the cleanliness of our surroundings.
In technical terms, rubbish is an unclean constant, characterized by its durability and protracted history, for it is not so easily removed from the face of the Earth. The most effective and healthy way is to burn it, as the ‘garbologist’ William Rathje emphasised in Rubbish! Unfortunately, unlike storage, burning generates costs. In our contact with waste, we constantly simulate ecology, leaving a permanent gap between proposed and actual models. Hence the need for metropolitan rubbish dumps. What is the highest point in Poland's Mazovia province? A landfill!
The nuisance of constant rubbish emerged when humans began to live a sedentary lifestyle. Nomads would leave rubbish at their previous camp and move on to a newer, cleaner site. But in towns, waste would accumulate. One might say that throwing rubbish straight out of houses onto the streets is a practice as old as towns themselves, as is the tendency to ‘sanitize’ using what I would term makeshift separation methods. As the old saying goes: out of sight, out of mind. The prototype for all fly tipping was rubbish taken out beyond the toll-gates and tossed into a ditch or thrown onto escarpments (as was the case with the Góra Gnojna in Warsaw’s Old Town; now a viewpoint for tourists). ‘Gehenna’ – synonymous in Polish with unpleasant experiences – was actually a deep, narrow valley outside the Dung Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, used as a rubbish tip. So, hygiene in human settlements is something of an escape from that historical Gehenna.
One should also recall cultural differences that can be marked on maps of Europe and the world. As Piotr Oczko demonstrated in his incredible work Miotła i krzyż [The Broom and the Cross], cleaning has been a national obsession in Holland since the 18th century. In Poland, meanwhile, as Bolesław Prus wrote so eloquently from a 19th-century perspective: “They live and breathe rubbish”. The old Polish proverb, Dobrze się wraca na stare śmieci (“There’s no place like the old dump”), implies a culture, an underlying tradition, and certain existential depths.
Translated by Mark Bence