At night they come, these silent scavengers of suburbia.
Long after the late-night joggers have finished lapping the park. Long after the food delivery riders have dispatched their last orders. Long after the shopping centres have fallen still.
Vacant is the doorways and high-rise balconies where nicotine addicts took their final vape before bed.
Even the dogs have retired for the evening.
Slowly, silently, they cruise the back streets of suburbia, examining with an exacting eye the domestic detritus neatly piled before each home. In nobody’s company but for the bats above, they search for riches.
Tonight is Hard Rubbish Night – that special time on the local council calendar when the saying “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” comes to life in all its glory.
Rarely does the carefully constructed stack of unwanted household items a resident lays out for collection the next morning survive till dawn untouched.
For these scavengers live by one unbreakable creed: that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that has been used by one ratepayer that can’t be reused, recycled, repurposed or resold by another.
Some are driven by sheer greed, manifesting capitalism at its most elemental as they scour for anything that can immediately take pride of place in a garage sale or at a Sunday market where some unsuspecting sap will pay $30 for an encrusted deep fryer the vendor found sitting under a tree two nights earlier.
Others merrily fool themselves into believing they are acting for the good of the planet, that by salvaging some disused microwave or bedside table or rice cooker from the 1970s they are saving it from the environmental evil of landfill, where the item would otherwise disintegrate over decades and eventually let off the toxic fumes that will poison the water table and annihilate future generations.
Then there are those consumed by the creativity born of recycling, proving that at no other time in life is the human mind more focused on its desire to save something – anything – from oblivion.
That dented pasta strainer would make a nice hanging planter for a gardenia. The cushion in this broken chair can make a cute bed for the cat. That bike can be fixed. As for those half-filled cans of coagulated house paint, we can fill them with concrete and use them as foundation supports for the new patio decking.
And, of course, there are those hardcore collectors whose hunger for other people’s garbage has made them the stuff of urban legend, for they will pilfer items from a hard rubbish pile while it is being assembled.
Having deposited one load of items onto their nature strip, a homeowner will go back to their garage to get more only to return and discover the portable TV set and the avant-garde designer lamp with the demon motif and the missing spring they put out just a moment ago have disappeared into the car of their new owners.
One mysterious aspect of hard rubbish hunting is how the vehicles into which found items are taken do not fit with the guerrilla image of your average hard-waste warrior.
Sometimes a ute or a trade van is involved, but more often than not the nocturnal kerb crawling is conducted from behind the digitized dashboard of a prestige sedan or expensive SUV.
Perhaps this explains why the quest for hard rubbish gold takes place at night, because of how incongruous the optics would be if the scavenger was caught in the act.
“Oh, hi. I hope you don’t mind. I was just driving by and fell in love with the paisley pattern ironing board here on your nature strip. Seeing as how you’re chucking it away do you mind if I put this piece of junk in the back seat of my BMW 1 Series 118i M Sport F40 Auto?”
Alarming as it is, while most hard waste collectors act voluntarily the hard truth is that the instinct to scavenge for reusable hard rubbish dwells within us all.
And it doesn’t matter how strong you think your willpower is.
Even if you’ve just installed seven bookshelves in your new apartment if you see one standing on somebody’s front lawn, all battered and bent, you’re at least going to stop and give it the once over just in case there’s a vacant corner in the flat that you didn’t know until this very moment has been silently screaming for this very thing to make it complete.
Though late-night hard waste warriors might like to think of themselves as pirates of the night engaged in some form of attractively nefarious activity, they are, as it happens, acting perfectly within the law.
A few oddball councils might have their own peculiar by-laws discouraging the practice, but generally speaking any ancient washing machine, broken fridge or pile of putrid blankets that a ratepayer dumps out the front of their home for a hard rubbish pick-up is considered legitimate salvage.
So, should you catch sight of a four-piece tartan-covered lounge suite sitting on somebody’s lawn that looks like just the thing to make your man cave complete, go for it.
Just be sure to spray your new pride-and-joy with a can or two of industrial-strength disinfectant. You know, just to be safe.