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Regulating the Rag and Bone Man

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This is a guest post by Clare Feikert, foreign law specialist for the United Kingdom at the Law Library of Congress.

“Instinctively he and we knew then that what we had not use for was nonetheless of worth”, Environment Committee, Second report, Recycling, 1993-94, HC 63-i, at 14.

The “rag and bone man,” also known as the bone-grubber, bone-picker, rag-gatherer, bag board, and totter, has been in existence in England since the Middle Ages; he would lead a horse and wagon around villages calling out for rags and bones.  The trade was a precursor for modern-day recycling by collecting unwanted items and selling them for reuse; it was immortalized in the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, which was later remade in the U.S. as Sanford and Son.

The bones collected would be sold and then boiled to create glue and fertilizer.  The rags would be sold to rag merchants, who paid the rag and bone man by the weight and quality of the rags they collected.  The rag and bone man was not held in high regard and his business was considered to be one of a “disagreeable nature” (The Sanitary Record, Oct. 5, 1877 at 217).   Rags were reused to create cloth, known as “shoddy,” and later became an important part of the paper making industry. (B. W. Clapp, An Environmental History of Britain Since the Industrial Revolution (1994), at 194.)

During the Victorian era, some laws were enacted that impacted the operation of the rag and bone man.  Section 112 of the Public Health Act 1875  provided that it was an offence to establish an offensive trade in any local district without the written consent of that district.  To do so was punishable with a fine of £50 (approximately US$65), which at the time was a substantial sum of money.  While the rag and bone trade was not specified in that section as an offensive trade, Section 113 of the Act enabled local authorities to prohibit certain trades they deemed offensive and enabled them to impose a penalty on traders who commenced such businesses without their written consent.  In 1911, in accordance with Sections 113 and 112 of the Public Health Act 1875, a local authority declared that the trade of rag and bone dealer was an offensive trade and should be prohibited “in order to prevent or diminish the noxious or injurious effects” (Mayo v Stazicker [1921] 2 KB 196).

The Provision of Gifts for Scraps

It was customary for the rag and bone man to provide balloons and other trinket gifts to children in return for their items. However, as medical knowledge developed and the causes of the spread of disease became more widely understood, the government included a provision in the Public Health Act 1925, which provided that it was an offence to give any person “in connexion with, the business of a rag and bone merchant any article of food or any balloon or other toy.” (Section 73).  In 1928, six cases were brought under this section in the city of Coventry.   This provision was later repealed and replaced by Section 154 of the Public Health Act 1936, contained under the heading “Prevention, notification and treatment of disease,” which prohibited individuals that “collect[] or deal[] in rags, old clothes or similar articles” from selling or delivering any article to children under the age of fourteen years while engaged in his work duties.  There were a number of cases heard in the magistrates’ court of people violating this provision.  In Daly v Cannon, the rag and bone man was caught by a sanitary inspector handing a live goldfish to a child under the age of fourteen and a case was brought against him.  The court considered whether a goldfish was an article within the meaning of Section 154(1) of the Public Health Act and noted the ingenuity of rag and bone collectors of requiring children to bring their own bowls as a receptacle in which to put the goldfish, as handing out goldfish in bags or bowls would clearly be considered an article and there would be no ambiguity over the application of the section. The judge reasoned that people using ordinary language would be disinclined to refer to a goldfish as an article, and that as a guilty judgment would result in a penalty fine of £5 (approximately U.S. $6.50), the court should apply the “very well-known canon of construction that if one has an ambiguity one always applies the construction which is most favorable to an accused person and a construction which will not involve the imposition of a penalty.”  The court therefore held that a goldfish was not an article within the meaning of Section 154 of the Public Health Act and no law had been broken. (Id. Per Lord Goddard C.J. at 264)

The Disappearance of the Rag and Bone Man

As time passed, the collection of rags and bones fell to the side due to the knowledge that these items contributed to the spread of disease, the provision of trash men by the local council, and the development of wood pulp used for paper.  Despite these changes, the rag and bone man continued his walk, calling instead for “any old iron,” which could be sold as scrap metal.  By the mid-eighties, there was a drop in value of scrap metal, and local councils established recycling centers at the local dump, reducing the income the rag and bone man could make along with the demand for his services and as a tradesman.  At that time, the rag and bone man mostly disappeared.

The Return of the Rag and Bone Man

By the late 1990s environmental concerns brought recycling and reusing back to the mainstream and the surge of prices for scrap metal in the mid 2000s beckoned the return of the rag and bone man. This time the trade was modernized by the use of a van, and his presence was announced by megaphone.  It wasn’t just the replacement of the horse and cart that had changed the way in which the rag and bone man worked; the laws under which he must operate are vastly different.

Modern Day Trash Regulations – From Cradle to Grave

The disposal of trash is now highly regulated, with the government following a waste management policy that has a “cradle to grave approach” to help ensure the proper disposal of trash.  A witness statement in an Environmental Audit Committee expressed concern that these regulations were overburdening the informal recycling sector and meant that people would be more likely to simply throw things in the trash that could otherwise have been recycled in the regular trash.  The Environmental Audit Committee responded that the paper trail required by its waste management program was essential to make sure trash was disposed of properly, and that it was using new technologies to make it easier for individuals to comply with the regulatory requirements.  (House of Commons. Environmental Audit Committee. Environmental crime: Fly-tipping, fly posting, litter, graffiti and noise, 2003-4, HC 445, Ev. 30).

Waste management regulations require individuals who transport, buy, sell, or dispose of trash to have a waste carrier, broker or dealer license.  Many rag and bone men have failed to comply with the requirements to obtain this license, and they are being caught, prosecuted and fined.  In one instance, the rag and bone man was caught shouting “any rag or bone” out of his van and was heard by an Environmental Enforcement Officer.  The man claimed he was calling for his dog and the trash in the back of his truck were his personal items.  The court did not believe him and he was found guilty of operating without a waste carrier’s license and fined £500 (approximately U.S. $650) and required to pay £1500 (approximately U.S. $2000) in costs and a £15 (approximately U.S. $20) victim surcharge.

The UK has experienced a large rise in fly tipping, which is the unlawful disposal of trash, frequently in spots of the bucolic English countryside, causing not only a blighted view but also health and safety issues.  Fly tipping is a criminal offense under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 punishable by a fine of up to £50,000 (approximately U.S. $65,500) and/or five years imprisonment.  Local authorities also have the ability to issue on the spot penalties of up to £400 (approximately U.S. $515) for anyone caught fly tipping.

There have been many reported cases of the modern-day rag and bone men violating fly tipping laws, which occurs in part as licensed waste traders will no longer accept trash from them in order to comply with the cradle to grave waste management policy.  The rag and bone men are reported to then unlawfully dispose of the trash they have collected, leaving the home owners who paid them to remove the trash liable to pay the hefty fine for fly tipping if the trash can be traced back to them.  This has made many individuals hesitant to use the modern-day rag and bone man to dispose of their unwanted items and trash.

Tracking Scrap Metal (and taxes)

As the rag and bone man’s earnings were typically in cash, they frequently were not disclosed to the tax man. In 2011 the High Court heard the case of Hackett v Crown Prosecution Service in which an individual’s trade was described as a rag and bone man, and the court did not express any surprise over the lack of tax returns or accounts as this was “not surprising for somebody who is a rag and bone man.” (Id. ¶ 49)  The failure of some rag and bone men to disclose their earnings on tax returns and accounts was incidentally addressed when the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 was enacted. This act was introduced in the wake of a vast increase in the theft of metal, which was reportedly costing the UK economy £220 million (approximately U.S. $285 million) per year, and impacting communities as railroads, churches and memorials were ransacked by thieves seeking to extract metal components.  The act requires any scrap metal dealers to be licensed by the local council and for these dealers to verify and retain the name and address of the sellers of scrap metal, and to pay the sellers by depositing the income into the sellers’ bank accounts, rather than providing them with a cash payment.  It is now an offense for a scrap metal dealer to pay cash, punishable with a fine of up to £5,000 (approximately U.S. $6,500).

The law is actively enforced and scrap metal dealers are already facing fines for failing to keep records of metal they transport – one metal dealer was fined £2,500 (approximately U.S. $3250) after he failed to produce records of the scrap metal he was transporting.

Noise Pollution

The rag and bone man has also to keep in mind laws designed to minimize noise.  In one instance, a rag and bone man was fined £200 and costs of £986.52 with a victim surcharge of £20 after the court determined that the use of the rag and bone man’s loudspeaker violated the Control of Pollution Act 1974.

While some rag and bone men appear to be successfully operating under the new laws, the newspapers are littered with reports of homeowners that have traded with unscrupulous rag and bone men being hit with high fines due to their trash being fly tipped, and rag and bone men operating without the required licenses.

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