Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/November 1879/Respecting Rubbish


MOST of the substance we call the rubbish of our houses finds its way sooner or later into the dust-bin, and thence into the dust-man's cart, which conveys it to the dust-contractor's yard; and there we are for the most part contented to lose sight of it. It is worthless to us, and we are thankful to be rid of it, and think no more of it. But no sooner does it reach its destination in the yard than our rubbish becomes a valuable commodity. The largest cinders are bought by laundresses and braziers, the smaller by brickmakers. The broken crockery is matched and mended by the poor women who sort the heaps, that which is quite past repair being sold with the oyster-shells to make roads; and the very cats are skinned, before their dead bodies are sent away with other animal and vegetable refuse to be used as manure for fertilizing our fields. Nothing is useless or worthless in the contractor's eyes; for rubbish, like dirt, is simply "matter out of place."

The term is an entirely correlative one; what is rubbish to one person under certain circumstances being under altered conditions extremely valuable to another. Gold itself is rubbish in the eyes of a man who is starving on a desert island; and the pearls which adorn a royal diadem, and have made the fortune of the lucky finder, were probably felt to be worse than useless by the poor oyster, tormented by the presence of some particle of matter which he felt to be decidedly "out of place" within his shell. Many a cook, no doubt, has washed the little fresh-water bleak, a fish about four inches long, and had thoughtlessly poured away the water after the operation, before it occurred to the French bead-maker that the lustrous silvery sediment deposited at the bottom of the vessel might be turned to account in the manufacture of artificial pearls, or pearl-beads.

It is, indeed, strange to consider how many of our most highly prized adornments and our most useful and important manufactures are derived from our own and Nature's refuse. The jet which brings in some twenty thousand pounds a year to the town of Whitby alone is merely a compact, highly lustrous, and deep-black variety of lignite a species of coal less ancient in origin than that of the Carboniferous era which we usually burn. And coal itself, as we know, is merely the refuse of ancient forests and jungles, peat-mosses and cypress swamps, which has been mineralized in the course of ages and stored for our use in the bowels of the earth. Amber, too, which is also used for ornaments, especially in the East, is but the fossil gum or resin of the Pinites succinifer, large forests of which seem to have existed in the northeast portion of what is now the bed of the Baltic. To the pine-tree this gum was certainly nothing but refuse, a something to be got rid of; but Nature, who rejects nothing however vile and contemptible, received it into her lumber-room, her universal storehouse, and, after keeping it patiently much more than the traditional seven years, sends it out again, transformed and yet the same, to adorn the Eastern beauty, and to give employment to many a skillful pair of hands. Bogwood, which, like jet, is used for bracelets, brooches, etc., is merely oak or other hard wood which has lain for years in. peat-bogs or marshes, and has acquired its dark coloring from the action of oxidized metal upon the tannin it contained.

Turning, however, from Nature's processes to those of man, we find that he is doing his best, however clumsily, to follow the thrifty example she sets him. For many and many a year no doubt the pine tree shed its pointed, needle-like leaves in the Silesian forests, and there they were left to decay and turn into mold at their leisure, until M. Pannewitz started a manufactory for converting them into forest-wool, which, besides being efficacious in cases of rheumatism when applied in its woolly state, can also be curled, felted, or woven. Mixed with cotton, it has even been used for blankets and wearing apparel. The ethereal oil evolved during the preparation of the wool is a useful medical agent, besides being serviceable as lamp-oil and also as a solvent of caoutchouc; and even the refuse, left when the leaves have yielded up their oil and wood, is not looked upon as rubbish, but is compressed into blocks and used for firewood, while the resinous matter it contains produces gas enough for the illumination of the factory.

Truly, as one man's meat is another man's poison, so one man's rubbish is another man's treasure. While the Russians export or simply waste all their bones, other more thrifty people boil them, to extract their grease and gelatine; convert them into charcoal, to be used in refining sugar; pass them on to the turner, to be made into knife-handles and a thousand other useful articles; or grind them up to supply phosphate of lime for the farmer's crops. The commonest and roughest kinds of old glass are now bought up by a certain manufacturer, who melts them up, colors the liquid, by a secret process of his own invention, to any tint he desires, and finally pours it out to cool in flat cakes. These are broken by the hammer into fragments of various size and shape, which are used to produce most effective decorations, such as might be introduced with advantage in many a now plain unattractive-looking building. The cost of this variety of mosaic is less than that of any other, and no doubt it will be extensively used as it becomes better known.

Even such insignificant things as cobwebs are turned to account, not merely for healing cut fingers—Bottom's sole idea as to their use—but for supplying the astronomer with cross-lines for his telescopes. Spiders' threads have even been woven, though one can not imagine where or how, except in fairy-land, by fairy fingers, and for fairy garments; and among the curiosities which travelers bring home from the Tyrol are pictures painted upon cobwebs, the drawing of which is perfectly clear and distinct, with the spider's handiwork at the same time plainly apparent. High prices are charged for those strange works of art, and no wonder, for the cobweb paper—which resembles a fluffy semi-transparent gauze—looks as if it must be extremely unpleasant to draw upon; and no doubt the eccentric artist fails many times before he succeeds in producing a salable article. But we may descend even lower than cobwebs in the scale of refuse, and still find that we have not reached the dead-level at which things become utterly worthless and good for nothing. Nay, much that is sweetest and associated in our minds with luxury and refinement may now be produced from that which is in itself most repulsive; for, while artificial vanilla can be made from the sap of the pine-tree, essence of almonds from benzine, and the delicate perfumes of woodruff and melilot from coal-tar, other scents as fragrant can be obtained from the unsavory refuse of the stable.

Perhaps there is nothing more interesting and instructive, as showing how the meaning of the word "rubbish" varies, than the history of gas-making. To begin with: the coal which yields most gas is what is termed "cannel" coal, and is now-worth from twenty-five to thirty shillings a ton or more; whereas fifty years ago, before the introduction of gas, it was looked upon as almost-worthless. In distilling coal for gas, a liquor is produced which for a long time was so great an inconvenience to the gas companies that they actually paid for permission to drain it into the common sewers, as the the simplest way of getting rid of it. This gas-liquor contains salts of ammonia, together with naphtha and tar; and the tar is now made by repeated distillation to yield pitch, benzole, creosote, carbolic acid, the substance known as paraffine, and aniline. It seems strange now that these valuable products should ever have been thrown away as useless; still stranger is it to learn that-we derive from one of these-waste substances the-whole series of beautiful colors called aniline dyes. Naphthaline is another residuary product, by a novel application of which it is said that the light-giving properties of gas may be enhanced fourfold, at a very trifling cost. But the uses to which the waste liquor of the gas-works may be put are not yet exhausted; for not only is it turned to account itself, but combined with the slaty shales found among the coal, which were also at one time a source of perpetual annoyance, it yields alum—used in the manufacture of paper and preparation of leather; copper as or green vitriol (sulphate of iron), used in dyeing, tanning, and the manufacture of ink and Prussian blue; and sulphuric acid.

Rags are now recognized as such a valuable commodity that in some countries their export is forbidden by government; nevertheless, from one source or another the paper-makers of England alone import annually some eighteen or twenty thousand tons of linen and cotton rags, and collect large quantities at home. These rags are of very varying degrees of cleanliness, as may be imagined; some of the English ones require no bleaching at all, while those of Italy bear away the palm for dirt. Old sails are made into the paper used for banknotes, so it is said, and old ropes reappear as brown paper; but many other things besides flax, hemp, and cotton are now used in the manufacture, and paper is made and remade over and over again. Not a scrap of paper need be wasted, for there are plenty of persons ready to buy it; and, if not good enough for remanufacture as paper, it can always be converted into papier-mâché, no matter what its color or quality. Cuttings of paper severed by bookbinders, pasteboard-makers, envelope-cutters, pocket-book-makers, and paper-hangers are readily bought up; and so too are tons-weight of old ledgers and account books by the papier-mâché manufacturer, together-with old letters and any other paper-rubbish, giving a pledge that all shall be promptly consigned to destruction in his large vat; and out of this heterogeneous assemblage he produces a substance so hard and firm and durable that it has been suggested as suitable for making soldiers' huts and even ships. It is already put to a variety of uses, and is employed for ceiling ornaments, cornices, frames, mill-board, bulkheads, cabin-partitions, piano-cases, chairs, tables, etc. One complete suit of papier-mâché furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl was made a few years ago for the Queen of Spain. Woolen rags are always salable for the purpose of being ground to powder, colored, and used for flock-papers and artificial flowers; while they may be remanufactured, no matter how old they may be, and, with a certain admixture of new wool, converted into a coarse kind of cloth largely exported to South America.

We might go on in this way almost ad infinitum, showing how one waste substance after another has been taken up and made into an important factor in the social economy; but enough has been said to prove that it is not so easy as it might seem at first sight to say with any certainty what is rubbish. Of this we may be sure—the wiser men grow and the more they learn of Nature's secrets, the less they will throw away as useless. After all, Nature is the great alchemist; and though necessity is sharpening our wits and making us very clever at turning to account many a thing which our forefathers contentedly threw away, still our best efforts look clumsy by the side of hers, and our dust-yards and lumber-rooms are but repulsive, untidy receptacles compared with her wonderful laboratory.—Chambers's Journal.