They weren’t always men, but they did collect rags and bones.
I remember them coming along the street with their horse and cart, the cart piled high with unwanted clothes, broken Bex Bissels, dubious bits of metal, ancient pieces of furniture, broken shoes. “Any old iron?” they would shout, and that would be the signal for the household to go into the street and offload any annoying items they hadn’t been able to dispose of elsewhere. You might get a clothes peg or balloon in return. With luck, the rag and bone man would be able to sell the pieces on. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. In this world, there’s always someone who wants something.
Even rags. There is a long tradition of rags being used to make paper. Rags could also go to the mills for recycling. The millworkers would shred scraps of material into fibres, grind them, mix them with small amounts of new wool, then spin the resulting yarn into a cheap cloth called shoddy or rag-wool. (Yes, that’s where the definition of “shoddy” as “not that great” comes from.)
Even bones. Yes, they collected actual bones and took them down to the factories where they could be boiled and made into glue or bone-meal fertilizer.
Nowadays, under various Waste Regulation legislation and WEEE recycling rules, there’d be too much form-filling and paperwork for a rag and bone man with a horse and cart to make a living. It costs money just to get a waste-carrier’s licence.
Also, if you’re a scrap-metal dealer, it’s now against the law to pay someone in cash for any old iron they might bring you.
Even when Steptoe and Son was broadcast in the 1960s, the rag and bone men it featured were disappearing from our streets. There is something to be admired, though, in an age where we have become increasingly aware of the limited resources of our planet — while throwing away ever more than before — in an occupation that believed everything could be reused, recycled, reborn.