The collection and disposal of the things we don’t want or need anymore – including left-over or rotten food, old clothes or broken household goods –  is a universal issue, across both cultures and time. In Sydney, we have dealt with our waste in a variety of ways including shell middens, cesspits, landfill and incineration.

Rubbish punt at Buckles Wharf at Blackwattle Bay, 1913 (City of Sydney, SRC5970)

In the late 18th and early 19th century, the citizens of Sydney managed the disposal of their own refuse. The population and size of the city was relatively small, and domestic waste, most of it organic – kitchen slops, sewage, broken crockery, old shoes and worn out clothing – was a private affair. For many, the solution was a cesspit or privy which was dug into the yard space behind the main house. Lime or carbolic acid was added to break down the material and to reduce the smell.

"Fowlers Tip", Camperdown c1920s (City of Sydney Archives, CRS 51/3996)

But as the population of the city grew over the 19th century, and as its limits extended, how best to dispose of waste became a vexed question.

From the 1840s, with the creation of municipal authorities to administer Sydney and its suburbs, it was increasingly a public issue, largely because of its effects on the overall health of the population.

From the mid 19th century through to the mid 20th century, household rubbish collection in the Sydney metropolitan area was ad hoc at best. The methods used to dispose of the waste once collected were similarly haphazard, and included tipping, burning and dumping 5 miles out to sea via a ‘rubbish punt’.

Most of the waste collected in inner Sydney was dumped into a ‘tip’ at Moore Park, and sometimes this was used to fill in land by private landholders. However, household and industrial rubbish was also used by the Colonial government for land reclamation works. For example, waste was used in the reclamation works at the headwaters of Darling Harbour in the late 19th century, to allow for the construction of a rail network for the shipping port here.

Snelgrove garbage lorry, c1930s (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 538/389)

In 1901, with the outbreak of  the Bubonic Plague in Sydney, the hygienic disposal of rubbish became a key public health concern. Incineration was decided upon as the most effective solution, and in 1901, a ‘destructor’ was built at Moore Park alongside the tip. To supplement it, another destructor was built at Pyrmont by 1910.

By the early 1930s, the Commonwealth Government legislated that rubbish dumped at sea had to travel 15 miles past Sydney Heads (previously it had been 5 miles). This made incineration an increasingly attractive option for many municipalities.

In 1926, John Boadle came up with a patented design for an incinerator – in this design, rubbish was gravity-fed into the incinerator so that it combusted at extremely high temperatures and produced minimal smoke. With Russian-born Nisson Leonard-Kanevsky, the Reverbatory Incinerator and Engineering Company (RIECo) was formed. They teamed up with American-born architect, Walter Burley Griffin and his partner Eric Nicholls to design them.

Alternative RIECo. tender design Willoughby Incinerator, 1933 (National Library of Australia)

RIECo designed and built 18 ‘destructors’ throughout Australia (of these 13 were designed by Griffin and Nicholls), including ones at Willoughby, Glebe and Pyrmont. Despite being extremely effective, all of these ‘destructors’  had 30 year lifespans at most, due to concerns about air pollution. Of the original 13 designed by Griffin and Nichols, only 7 remain, some of them adaptively re-used, others in disrepair, all of them memorials to garbage!