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Rubbish! The History of Waste in Cambridgeshire

20th May to 23rd September 2012
Sundays, 2 to 5pm

The Rubbish Carter

The Museum's summer exhibition looks at how Cambridge has dealt with different kinds of waste over the past 400 years. This is a topic close to our hearts as for over 70 years the pumping station, which now provides a home for the museum, was Cambridge's rubbish and sewage centre. Rubbish was brought here and what could be used again was separated while the rest was burnt in the destructors (large furnaces) to raise steam power for the sewage pumping engines based in the building. The exhibition covers topics including the history of waste, waste and recycling today, water waste, art from recycled materials and waste in space.

Waste in Cambridge in the Past
During the past 400 years matters did not change over much. The conditions described by William Ranger in his report of 1849 had existed for hundreds of years. He reported blood from slaughter houses running in the gutters, and the air heavy with the stench of midden heaps; ponds and ditches were used for dumping all kinds of waste. Even the River Cam was despoiled by the discharge of many sewers. At that time, the local authority employed 'scavengers' to clear rubbish from the streets; and 'night-soil men' collected 'privy soil'.

Significant action to improve these conditions was not taken until the 1890s.

One of the measures was the establishment of the pumping station, now home to Cambridge Museum of Technology, on the banks of the Cam. Here, household rubbish was burnt to raise steam, to power the engines which pumped sewage to the Milton sewage farm. At the farm it was used as a fertiliser to grow the crops which fed the horses which pulled he carts which collected the rubbish and brought it to the pumping station! Even the ash from the burnt rubbish could be used in road making.

This facility served the city for seventy years until it was replaced by an electrically-powered pumping station in the 1960s.

A scavenger with his handbell and refuse basket

Waste Today
Paradoxically, as the handling of waste became better organised and more efficient, the volume of rubbish grew until today each one of us produces almost half a tonne of waste.

In order to deal with this amount, the East of England alone has over 900 locations dealing with waste, including 447 active landfill sites, 282 metal handling operations, and many specialised facilities handling, for example, hazardous waste. In addition there are 396 'transfer stations' which take materials that can be recycled. They handle 23 million tonnes of which 5 million tonnes is food. 9.4m tonnes is recycled - over a third.

Rubbish Materials
The types of waste we produce are changing all of the time. When the pumping station was built household waste included ashes from fires which provided an excellent fuel for the boilers. The composition of domestic waste changed and eventually the pumping station boilers relied on coke rather than refuse for fuel.

Today the amount of polymeric materials (plastics and rubbers) has grown enormously and now the discarded materials of electronic items are causing concern.

Only 13% of the world's production of e-waste (electronic waste), including items like computers and mobile phones, is recycled currently. This includes toxic metals such as mercury and lead, and brominated flame retardants.

International Rubbish
West African countries of Benin, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, and Nigeria together create between 650,000 and one million tonnes of domestic e-waste every year, most of which ends up on unsafe and unregulated landfills. Yet many people chose to live and work on landfills, making a living from recovering valuable materials like indium and palladium, and precious metals such as gold, copper and silver, contained inside the equipment.

General information on waste and recycling: Local information: Information on recycling: Recycling at work: Greener living: Ecological shopping: Charities/ second hand trading and donating: Information on ocean pollution: Videos: related topics: