Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on June 27, 2009.
As the current municipal strike nears the end of its first week, garbage remains the talk of the town. As Torontonians break through the plastic wrap placed around bins and protest sites chosen as temporary trash depots, letter pages and website comment sections fill with gripes and suggestions on how to handle those responsible for ensuring our garbage is taken care of. Since the first container of local refuse was carted away, city residents have publicly aired in the press their praise and scorn for those collecting our trash.
A letter from “Consulting Sanitary Engineer” Edwin Newsome that appeared in the April 25, 1928 edition of the Star provided suggestions on how to improve garbage pickup for residents and workers. We suspect that Mr. Newsome would burst with pride if he saw how some of his ideas came to fruition:
Our collection of garbage is about as filthy a method as could be humanly conceived. The filthy fluids, rotten vegetable matter, dirty paper is seen along our streets after the garbage man has been round is simply disgusting, as well as being the very reverse to healthful. A householder puts out cans of garbage well wrapped up. Cans with covers on. Dogs come round, upset the cans, and the garbage man does the best he can to clean up. But he has too much ground to cover. The wagons or carts used are a joke. They are no more fit for the purpose than is a kiddy’s car with a perforated bottom in it…What we in Toronto need is first a new garbage collection system including incineration, reclamation and by-production plants. We need standard garbage cans, these to be made by the city and delivered in numbers necessary to each householder’s requirement, each householder being charged the cost of cans left in the first place…I consider [garbage men] nothing less than public benefactors. It makes me ill when I think of those fellows lifting all kinds of receptacles up over shoulder height and dumping the filthy garbage into carts. What about a few ratepayers getting busy and starting something, not always leaving everything to our city fathers.
From the April 27, 1950 edition of the Star, praise for those hauling the loads away from the east end of the city:
Sir: After reading complaints about garbage men I would just like to give the men who pick up the garbage on Condor Ave. a well-merited word of praise. They are always pleasant and as I had occasion to put out the usual winter accumulation of cellar junk today I would just like to say I found all of it collected and my cans left neatly covered. I think perhaps if we take a little time to give credit when deserved the men might feel their efforts a little more worthwhile. HOUSEWIFE
Any bets as to how many angry comments, shows of support or unfinished rants due to a rage-fuelled heart attack would be spurred nowadays by this letter from the December 17, 1954 “Voice of the People” page of the Star?
Sir: I hope you can find space to print this complaint and I am sure all garbage men will agree with me. To the public we are only classed as garbage men. But if it weren’t for us, what condition would our municipality get into? What would it look like? How many men are there that will handle garbage and work outside in every kind of weather—snow, slush, mud, wind, rain and all that goes with it. And what thanks do we get for it? We have to climb stairs and fight our way into the middle of lawns through snowbanks to get the garbage cans. Yet who is forgotten at Christmas? The garbage man, of course, the man that walks all day. If people would only realize that the garbage man is very important, then they would make things easier for us to work with. GARBAGE MAN
“Garbage Man” provoked one response with a slight tinge of jealousy from a writer who also identified themself solely by their occupation, which was published on Christmas Eve:
Sir: I am answering the letter of Garbage Man, He complains of working in all kinds of weather and that his is a thankless job. Yet he works only 40 hours a week and is well paid for it. Just think of the poor gasoline service station attendant who works a lot more than 40 hours a week in mud, slush, rain and snow, and is not as well paid for it. His gratuities are less than those of garbage men. Well-to-do customers, and garbage men too, come in for $2 worth of gas and they want their oil, battery, radiator and tires checked free. On top of that they want their windshields wiped off. I don’t think the garbage man is so badly off. ATTENDANT
Further responses from the likes of short-order cooks, parking-lot cashiers, grocery baggers, and bowling-alley pin boys failed to materialize.
The strike ended on July 27. Leaving a deep well of resentment among the public, its impact would have made it difficult for David Miller to be re-elected had he not dropped out of the 2010 mayoral race. In 2011, garbage collection west of Yonge Street was contracted out to GFL. Talk of privatizing the remainder of the city’s pickups has been a recurring topic over the past decade.