Burn Barrels, Waste Management and The Junk Man

‘Round about 1970, “waste management” came to the small village of Gypsum, Ohio. I remember going to the “big city” with my dad to buy a shiny metal garbage can, the first he’d ever owned. I’m not entirely certain what prompted the City of Port Clinton to extend trash pickup to the “suburbs,” but I recall it being a fairly big deal, for my family at least.

Prior to 1970, the more rural residents of Ottawa County were expected to deal with their own household trash in whatever way they deemed appropriate. Gypsum was (and still is) an unincorporated municipality, which is to say that we had no locally elected governmental body making rules and looking out for the “general welfare” of the citizenry; no zoning, no permitting, no micromanaging ordinances. If you wanted to raise chickens, goats or Bengal tigers in your backyard, you could just have at it. Theoretically, we were under county jurisdiction, but aside from a sheriff’s car occasionally cruising down Lake Street, we were more or less left to our own devices, and we did just fine under that arrangement.

Like most of our neighbors, we had always divided our trash into three streams; what you could burn, what you could bury and what had to be hauled off. Every home in Gypsum had a rusting 55-gallon steel drum sitting upright somewhere in their backyard. Any refuse that would burn; newspapers, magazines, cereal boxes, toilet paper rolls, etc. would go into the burn barrel and once or twice each week dad would splash a bit of gasoline on it and toss in a lit match. On any given summer evening, you could see tendrils of smoke rising from the backyards of a dozen homes, and, depending on the wind speed and direction, smell the acrid smoke of your neighbors’ detritus. I think it is important to point out that this was 1970, and that plastic packaging was just then starting to become common. Most of our food back then came in cardboard, glass or metal containers. If you were to attempt to do this today, you’d be creating a carcinogenic toxic cloud, not just an annoying, smoky one.

The second stream consisted of food scraps. These were collected in a metal container that sat on the kitchen counter, not unlike the small compost holders found in many homes today. Every day or two — the frequency increased with the temperature, for obvious reasons — mom would empty the container into an open pit dad had dug in the garden. These pits were a foot or so across and a couple of feet deep. When one got about half full, dad would fill it in with dirt and dig another. Was this an effective method of composting? What I know today about the subject tells me no, but we always had a bumper crop of vegetables and never used any fertilizer, so…

The final stream consisted of those things which would not burn and could not be buried; metal cans, glass bottles, car parts, lawnmowers and the like. These were collected in a cardboard box and left out for the “junk man.” In Gypsum, our junk man was named Hap. Hap pulled a large two-wheel cart around town collecting junk. He would stop by the house every couple of weeks. I will admit that I don’t precisely know how the financial part of this arrangement worked or where the junk ultimately ended up. He probably made a few bucks selling the glass and metal at the scrap yard, but I imagine the homeowners “tipped” him, as well. Hap had some sort of a physical issue. He walked hunched over with a shambling gait. Dad always said that he had been dropped on his head as a baby, but I suspect it was more likely some sort of congenital disorder. I suppose that by today’s standards it might be considered cruel to force a man with a serious ailment to make a living by hauling other people’s cans and bottles around, but Hap always seemed happy in his work. In the summer, folks would come out and offer him cold drinks and cookies, and hot coffee in the winter. It’s hard to say what his actual quality of life might have been, but I’d like to think that being an integral part of the community’s ecosystem was preferable for him to being sequestered in some institution waiting for his next round of medication or the next game of bingo to start.

The start of “waste management” marked the end for Hap, of course. Instead of carefully separating our trash we could just throw everything into one can and a big truck would come every week and haul it all away. We kept the burn barrel for a few more years — old habits die hard — but by the end of the decade it was more for show than anything else. Things haven’t quite come full circle in that regard. If I were to start burning refuse in my backyard, I’m pretty sure the local police would descend upon the homestead in riot gear. But we do separate our “recyclables” and send our food scraps to our backyard compost bin. It sometimes amazes me how things that are considered “environmentally responsible” today were merely the way things were done 50 years ago. It makes me wonder what “progress” really means.

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