I stood upon the edge of the cliff and looked down into a sea of refuse. For 2000 years, the inhabitants of Marburyport had thrown their garbage over this cliff into the sea. But now the sea had been forced back, and a reeking mire spread out before me, great piles of sodden wood, metal, stone and some sort of disgusting black goo in which plants grew. Filthy, oily rivulets of water flowed around the piles of junk; vines flowed in and out of the water across the piles. It was one of the most vile things I have ever seen.
Just like the body produces wastes, so does any sentient settlement. Even hunter-gatherers produce wastes—bones, broken tools, bits of hide, broken baskets, etc. Every permanent settlement needs somewhere to put its garbage.
Garbage dumps can take many forms; many early cities just dump things in the streets until they rot. Over time, though, civilizations try to clean up their streets and move their garbage. This may involve tossing it into the sea or a river or off a cliff if one is handy, or finding abandoned strip mines and other mines to dump it in.
Some dumps may sort garbage by types—food waste here, wood here, car parts there, etc. Others are just a big nasty mess. Sometimes artificial pits are created, which may eventually be covered over with dirt; this is known as a landfill.
When a rubber tire gets buried, it catches a pocket of air inside it. That air tries to work it's way to the surface, and slowly takes the tire with it. This makes the landfills unstable, as tires push their way to the surface, displacing the dirt, and exposing the buried trash. Once it's at the surface, the tire tends to collect rain water, which then sits stagnant, and becomes a hatching ground for mosquitoes. Not surprisingly, many garbage dumps and landfills now refuse to take tires - but they'll still be plagued for decades by the ones they accepted in the past.
In some cultures, there may be a clan or class or caste of garbage pickers who collect the garbage and put it in the dump and in return get to keep anything of interest they find. Or possibly rival gangs who aspire to such a position. After all, Duke Ellington may well find the 3000 GP chair with a broken leg no longer acceptable, so he throws it out, but if you just get it repaired once you dig it out of the garbage, you can turn quite the profit…
Game and Story Use
- Landfills are ideal environments for fungus, slime monsters, oozes, and the like. Indeed, some cities may deliberately acquire such things in a fantasy setting to feed their garbage to.
- Oops, some noble's valuable magic item got thrown out by an incompetent maid! Or a thieving one. Now you have to go find it for him down at the dump before someone else does.
- The city landfill is full and now the city is in a tizzy as the fight to figure out who is going to lose their land to a new landfill has begun. This is a political adventure.
- A notorious criminal has escaped in the prison's daily garbage disposal. Now you have to find them before they can escape from the dump.
- A mad cult of Jubilex (or some other appropriate slime god) has set itself up in the dump and has to be rooted out before it unleashes an army of ooze on the city.
- The Flying City of Sentara has settled in over your city and now is using YOU as their garbage dump. Something has to be done.
- The city has decided to acquire a few black puddings to use for garbage disposal, and you're the lucky one chosen to go find some and bring them back alive!
- The local garbage picker clan has had some very good luck lately, and now another group's trying to muscle in on their dump. Can you help them deal with the interlopers in return for a few choice items the clan offers you?
- A game that's secretly set After The End could have it's Planet Of The Apes Ending moment occur when a 10,000 year old vulcanized rubber tire forces it's way out of the ground in the PCs backyard. Like in The Gods Must Be Crazy, this strange object, born of mother earth, might transform their culture. Curious PCs will likely start digging down, and uncover all sorts of treasure (and vile garbage) in the bowels of the earth.
- Also After the End, some sucessor civilisation mining landfills for resources - or even precursor artifacts. Almost truth in television already as some landfills in the UK from the 70s and 80s are being sampled to determine the possibility of recovering recyclable metals etc.
- Bear in mind that many pre-modern civilisations generated very little waste - most people didn't have a great deal to start with and kept what they had far longer than modern people do, and even when they disposed of it it was normal for quite a lot of material to be recycled - animal bones, broken crockery and fire ashes are likely to be the majority of your refuse in a medieval city (at least once the squishy bits have rotted down).