News | 22 November 2020
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Hard yakka as a city dustie

Sid Keelan lied about his age to get his first job at Wellington City Council. Fifty-two years later he’s still working there.

Sid Keelan outside the Wellington City Council office on The Terrace.

The year was 1968, and 15-year-old Sid was keen to be a dustie – the name for the dust bin collectors who went door-to-door all over the capital collecting rubbish from household bins.  

The problem for Sid was that you needed to be 18 or older to sign up.  

“I don’t think they believed I was 18, but they gave me the job anyway. But then when I turned 18 and the boss found out he actually sacked me," Sid laughs.

“One of the guys went in and had a go at him, and the boss eventually changed his mind but said I was on notice from then on.” 

Fast forward 52 years and the keen lad from East Coast is still working for Wellington City Council. He's since worked several different roles and is currently an auditor in the City Networks team. 

Sid still fondly recalls life as a dustie – a hard, physical job that kept him fit. 

It involved running all over Wellington, going from backdoor to backdoor emptying the metal bins into huge sacks, then lugging the sacks out to the ‘Paxit’ or Bedford rubbish trucks. 

On wet days the sacks got even heavier, the roads slippery, and the hard work even harder. 

It could also be dangerous, with broken glass routinely thrown in with the rubbish, says Sid. 

That meant regular gashes on your legs and back from where the sack sat – and meant Sid got “pretty scarred up”. 

“When I turned 18, I had a bad cut, it was a wine bottle and it cut me pretty deep. I got 15 stitches, but I was only off work for a couple of weeks.” 

The odd truck ended up over a bank too, victim of a handbrake mishap. 

“You’d get back to where the truck should have been and it had rolled off and wiped out a house,” Sid says. 

The life of the Wellington dustie was recorded in the 1971 short documentary, Dustie – with Sid featuring near the start. 

Watching it gives a real sense of how tough the job was. 

Sid says that back in those days the bosses and engineers “didn’t care” too much about the dusties, as long as the work got done. 

“There were no thank yous or any of that. But it changed as the unions started to come into it.” 

Recycling and waste collection.

Rubbish collection has changed a lot since Sid Keelan started as a dustie in 1968.

That didn’t mean the job didn’t have its good points, especially as it operated on a “job and finish” basis. 

“You’d be done by 11am. It was 3-4 hours of hard slog and then you went home. It was like a gym workout, especially when the sacks were wet and heavy.” 

They were occasionally given wet-weather gear, which they’d promptly cut the sleeves off and trim the pants into shorts. 

“All the best clothes were the stuff we’d just find anyway. I wore the clothes I found.” 

And then there were the perks. 

“Some days you’d be working up in Newtown and the perks were better than the wages,” he says. 

“Mainly it was beer or soft drinks, which we’d sell to a dairy owner, then go round the corner to the Caledonian. That was one of the more rugged pubs then. 

“I was a bit young, so I’d sit in the truck and they’d give me some money for an ice cream.” 

At Christmas Sid and the other dusties would be invited into the houses for “a quick whisky or something like that”. 

“It was a really nice time of year. You’d come away with boxes of gifts and all sorts, often from the older people. 

“The older people really looked after us. They’d always line their bins with newspaper and they’d keep them in a dry place. 

“The younger ones, they didn’t care, it’d be like a pigsty.” 


Sid can picture most of Wellington's streets 'like a map book'.

At the end of a shift the crews would roll back to the Herd St yard, where if you were late you were “guaranteed a cold shower”. 

After 20 years as a dusty Sid “went over to the bosses’ side” and became an overseer, before working in various departments including drainage. 

His current role involves looking after the sump and street sweeping contractors and helping make sure our city’s streets are kept clean. 

His huge knowledge of Wellington streets that he built up over years as a dustie is still a big advantage in his current role. 

“I know most of the roads around Wellington, from Tawa to Miramar. If they come up, I can picture them, it’s like a map book in my head.” 

Looking back, Sid says that everything changed when the Council brought in roadside collection, and not necessarily for the better. 

“When the backdoor [collection] went, a lot went with it. 

“For the older people we would talk to them, we would take the paper to them, take their milk bottles to them. 

“We used to really communicate with the public, we had that contact every day. 

“It was a simpler time, that’s for sure. Everything was simple back then.” 

The National Film Unit short documentary ‘Dustie’ is held by NZ On Screen and can be watched here