We often think of garbage as dirty, smelly, useless, and perhaps dangerous. Less often do we recognize that a major aspect of garbage is that it isn’t owned by any one. In a world where almost every square inch has been claimed and few are the goods that haven’t got someone’s name, flag, or barcode stuck on them, garbage turns out to be one of the last strongholds of truly public property.
Following the crowds, on our way to Mallory Square, where all the tourists watch the sun set in Key West, Margaret and I wandered into a garden park that featured a towering sculpture called The Wreckers. Busts of famous Key Westers surrounded the sculpture on rocky pedestals.
At one time Key West may have been the richest town in Florida, and it owed this distinction to garbage: salvage from wrecked ships. The Florida Keys, dividing the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean, have been a difficult obstacle for ships largely because of the Florida Reef‘s proximity to the shipping lanes in the Straits of Florida.
As usual, I’m captured by the fine line we draw between garbage and valuables. Marine salvage is yet another example of a resource that might be construed as useless by some, becoming a source of wealth for others.
Marine salvage walks the line between garbage and goods. Salvage exists because when a ship has wrecked or is in peril, its goods stand the real possibility of becoming waste if they are not salvaged. However, salvage law doesn’t quite put the salvaged goods on the same footing as garbage. While garbage is pretty generally deemed to be a public property and responsibility, marine salvage isn’t entirely up for grabs.
The laws usually require that if someone salvages another person’s property, the original owner of the property should remunerate the salvor, often according to the value of the property rescued. What I find particularly interesting is that this is often a legal liability regardless of whether a contract was signed. Such a liability points to a communal responsibility for goods and materials.
It makes me wonder if there isn’t a gradient of goods: at one end is private property–goods that are the sole property of one entity–and at the other end is garbage–goods that are completely abandoned, cast on the public responsibility. As goods get further away from specific ownership they come closer to garbage.