Victorian dust-yards: early recycling

Whilst most people regard recycling as a recent phenomenon, it has been practiced in many forms for centuries.

A number of studies have identified large scale recycling systems as arising from the 19th-century Sanitary Movement. [2] However, in London, an often overlooked but very effective and well-organised system appears to date back much earlier to the end of the 18th century – the Dust Yard. [1], [2]

Dust-yards provide an early example of municipal waste management. The dust-yard system effectively recycled everything collected and can be seen as the first example worldwide of a large scale ‘zero-waste’ system. However, it must be highlighted that the dust-yard system achieved ‘zero-waste’ under very poor conditions when viewed according to the 21st century standards and without any of the environmental and occupational health considerations. [2]

The development of the dust-yard system was driven by the monetary value of household waste (or household “dust”) rather than any environmental legislation or public health concerns. At this time household dust comprised largely coal ash from domestic fires. [2] In the 1850s, the average amount of coal burned by each household in London was estimated at 11 tons per year. [4] Coal ash was in demand by the brick industry for brick making, badly needed by a rapidly expanding London. It was also in demand from the food and agricultural industry across the South East region as fertiliser for the crops needed to feed the growing urban population. [1], [2]

In response to this, London parishes began to let contracts, effectively granting an exclusive franchise for private contractors to collect and treat residual household waste. Dust contractors were responsible for dust collection and sweeping streets. They also established dust-yards, which were essentially early recycling facilities, where separated materials were sold to various users. This largely forgotten waste management system is known as the ‘dust-yard system’. [1], [2]

Household waste was collected by dust-men and the manner in which the dust was collected was simple. The household dust was deposited by householders in holes called dust-pits or ash-pits. The collection crew typically included two dust-men, the filler and the carrier, using a horse-drawn cart. The filler filled the baskets by shoveling from the dust-pit. The carrier carried the basket to the cart emptying it and returning for the next one. The process was repeated until the cart was fully loaded, when it returned to the dust-yard, where the contents of the cart went through a chute onto a dust heap before proceeding on another collection round.

Dust-yards were mainly situated along the River Thames and canals, often in what were then London suburbs (Figure 1 and Figure 2).

dustyard fig1

Figure 1: A dust-yard c.1875, in Lambeth, Central London. (Grid Ref: 530633, 178387)

dustyard fig2

Figure 2: A dust-yard c.1869 in Richmond, London. (Extract from Surrey.VI.S.E. Grid Reference: 518413, 174950)

A dust-yard was sorted in the following way; near the center of the dust-yard was highest dust-heap which composed of the finer portion of the dust used for manure, known as the soil. Around this heap numerous lesser heaps were arranged, consisting of the mixed dust and rubbish.

The sorting process was performed by women and girls, known as dust-women, boys and older men, usually related to the dust-men. [3] Dust-men would shovel the waste material onto iron sieves which were held by sifters, who were dust-women aged 16 to 60+ and old men. [4] Then the sifters forcefully moved the iron sieves back and forth separating the breeze and cinders from the soil. [2], [3] The cinders and breeze were dumped into another basket which boys carried off. [4] Other salvageable items were recovered by manually removing them from the dust-heap before shoveling the mixed material onto each sieve or they were separated on the sieve (Figure 3). All the separated marketable materials or re-usable constituents were stored in separate piles. The soil and breeze were loaded onto carts, and were conveyed to nearby barges on the River Thames or canals, then sold to brick makers and farmers. [2], [3], [4]

dustyard fig3

Figure 3: ‘Sorting a Dust-heap at a County Council Depot’ Extracted from Living London (c.1901) [5]

The dust market peaked around the 1820s, when most localities were paid for allocating the right to have their waste collected. Contracting dust collection to the private sector allowed parishes to keep the streets relatively clean, without the need to develop institutional capacity. [2] Dust-yards were a typical part of London life for many years and are mentioned in the context of English literature, especially in novels by Charles Dickens. The system generated useful income for many up to the middle 1850s, when the market value of dust collapsed. The dramatic fall in the value of dust coincided with the sanitation movement which was beginning to make an impact at this time. During this period, parishes were under pressure to take formal responsibility for waste collection and street cleaning on public health grounds. The existence of the dust-yard system was important in facilitating a relatively smooth transition to an institutionalised, municipally-run solid waste management system in England. [2] As an example of public-private sector participation, it predates current UK practice by more than 100 years. Dust-yards are a forgotten waste management system that should be regarded as early precursors of modern materials recycling facilities (MRFs) and modern mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) plants, separating material flows and producing what are now called “secondary recovered fuels” and “compost-like outputs”. [2]



  1. Helbert, L., n.d. Centenary history of waste and waste managers in London and South East England [pdf]. Available at: [Accessed 24th October 2015]
  2. Velis, C., Wilson D., and Cheeseman R., 2009. 19th century London dust-yards: A case study in closed-loop resource efficiency. Waste Management, [e-journal] 29 (2009), 1282-1290. Available through:  [Accessed 24th October 2015]
  3. UC SANTA CRUZ, 2015. From “Of the Dustmen of London”: London Labour and the London Poor. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24th October 2015]
  4. Nichols J., 2013. Victorians: The great recyclers., [online]. Available at:   [Accessed 24th October 2015]
  5. Sims, G.R., 1901-03. Living London. [Photograph] (London – Cassell and Company).

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