On pavements all across the suburbs, you will see them lined up in their olive-green livery, with their red or blue or yellow or green caps signifying their content.
Green for grass clippings, leaves, flowers, weeds, twigs and small branches; yellow for plastics, metals, cartons, and glass bottles and jars; blue for clean paper and flattened and crushed cardboard; red for miscellanous items that cannot be recycled.
In other societies, there is too much else on the agenda for people to worry about the taxonomic categorisation of garbage, but here, it’s no worries, mate; it’s the law.
Your bins must be placed on the kerb, at least half a metre apart, with the bin lids facing to the street, you may not place extra items next to the bin, your bins must be out before 6am on collection day, and your bin lids must close: “We can’t lift heavy/overfull bins,” warns the pamphlet from Council, with the picture of the smiling Garbo waving from the cab of his truck.
For me, the bins of Sydney have come to symbolise the spirit of orderliness at the heart of Australian society, a society that places as much emphasis on the little details at the lowest level of the food chain, as on the bigger picture higher up.
The Aussies are often stereotyped as being obsessed about rules – they’ve even got a variant of rugby called Aussie Rules, okay? – but at the same time they are an easygoing and independent lot by nature, and you get the sense that they obey the rules for the greater good, and not just because some bastard in Canberra tells them to.
(You know, of course, that “bastard” is a term of endearment here, except where it applies to politicians.)
You see this spirit at work not just on the pavements on Dustbin Day, but on the roads every day: people stick to the speed limit, they don’t drive on the hard shoulder, they don’t go through red lights, they don’t drive and text and hoot and wave their fists and swear at each other. At least, not that I noticed; but then again, I wasn’t driving.
The other day, I went for a walk along the headland at Dee Why, a beautiful coastal spot on the Northern Shore of Sydney, with the deep-green Pacific on one side and an emerald-green golfcourse on the other.
There is a wooden walkway that leads from the beach to a small sculpture of a humpback whale (just the fin) on the top of the cliff, and I stood there for a while and felt the breeze and looked for whales cresting the waves on their annual migration.
I didn’t see any, but on my way back to the beach, I saw a man studiously snapping pictures with his mobile phone, right at the foot of the walkway, and I thought he must have been observing some interesting marine phenomenon.
He saw me and said “how ya going?”, which is the Australian equivalent of howzit, and I greeted him and he showed me what he was photographing.
The last step of the walkway, a new step, freshly varnished and bolted and apparently put in place just the day before, to make a gentler descent to the shore.
It was just a small step, but he was proud of it, and impressed by it, and I suspected he may even have been the one who asked the Council to put it there.
I nodded and said it looked good, and I waved at him and carried on walking on the sand.
I can think of a couple of million reasons why I wouldn’t want to live in this place, especially at the height of summer, when they flit around your face with a vengeance and not even the cork-bobbing hats can keep them at bay.
But for the most part, it is a good place, a place that works, a place where the job gets done. And nowhere more so than on Obsessive Compulsive Dustbin Day, in Sydney.