British Columbia

How British Columbia's Garbage Gobblers nearly went extinct

Trash cans decorated as garbage-eating monsters once lined B.C. highways. Today they are preserved by a handful of enthusiasts.

The decorated trash cans were part of an ill-fated environmental movement in the 1950s

B.C.'s Garbage Gobblers were a popular road side attraction from the 1950s to the 1980s. (Courtesty Ministry of Transportation, credit D. Brown)

A mysterious creature sits behind a fence at the Emcon highway maintenance yard on Highway 97.

Known simply as "The McLeese Lake Garbage Gobbler," it's one of a few remaining mascots of an ill-fated 1950s environmental movement in B.C.

Children were encouraged to 'feed' the Garbage Gobblers by pushing trash into its 'mouth'. This McLeese Lake Gobbler was rescued from a ditch by a highway maintenance crew. (John Threlfall)

The year, 1958 was a time of prosperity and B.C.'s centennial year.

Premier W.A.C. Bennett and his Social Credit Party were celebrating the paving of a new highway network connecting the province.

It was also a time when family road trips were growing in popularity across North America, but environmental sensitivity was not.

"Throwing garbage out the window was the normal thing," remembers Saanich-based author M.A.C. Farrant. "Of course the highways and side-roads were just a complete mess of litter."

Launched in 1958, Garbage Gobblers were popular among adults, as well. (John Threlfall)

To counter the mess, B.C. Parks Branch employee Len Shaw created the Garbage Gobblers.

Targeted at children, the decorated trash cans encouraged families to get out and dispose of their trash responsibly.

They also became a roadside attraction in themselves, a popular place to pose for photos.

"My brother and I would fight over who got to feed the Garbage Gobbler with the leftovers of the lunch we were having," said Vancouver-based preservationist and historian, Michael Kluckner.

"I do remember them very clearly .... they've been in my memory for just about as long as I've been around."

As popular as they were, it was soon discovered the Gobblers had a fatal flaw: an open-back design which meant the garbage would simply pile-up around the base of the can.

The Garbage Gobbler's downfall was an open-backed design, which attracted animals as trash piled up on the ground. (John Threlfall)

"It took the local animals very little time to discover that, 'Oh look, there's a whole meal sitting here,' " said John Threlfall, a Victoria-based writer who has written about the distinctive trash cans.

Still, he credits the creatures with helping kick-start environmental awareness in the province.

"This is where we see the start of the environmental movement, we see the attitudes starting to change and I think these kind of things helped bring it into play," he said.

Garbage Gobblers remained in place until the early 1980s when the government started replacing them with bear-proof canisters.

Today, Gobbler enthusiasts track down what few remain.

"It's become, literally, like a sort of treasure hunt,' Threlfall said.

He recalled his reaction when he discovered the McLeese Lake Garbage Gobbler on a recent road trip.

The Garbage Gobbler is memorialized on a trash can outside the Royal B.C. Museum. (John Threlfall)

"Just out of the corner of my eye, I saw it up on the hill behind a chain link fence in the works yard and slam on the breaks, spin the wheel around, freak out my family and we take the off ramp and go up," he said, laughing.

Dennis Purdy and his coworkers at the highway maintenance yard saved that particular Gobbler from a ditch more than ten years ago.

"We ran a cable down over the bank and put it around its neck and pulled it up with a piece of equipment," he said.

Purdy said people constantly stop to take their picture with the Gobbler and often ask if it's for sale.

"I would like it to stay there," he said.

"Most people nowadays just wonder what it is and where it came from."

In 2015, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation introduced a new version of the Gobblers. Ministry staffer Kristen Reimer says the government tried to capture the nostalgic character while appealing to a new to a new generation. (B.C. Ministry of Transportation)

To hear the full story click on the audio labeled 'How British Columbia's Garbage Gobblers nearly went extinct.'

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Ash Kelly

Digital Producer

Ash Kelly is an associate producer for CBC Radio and online. Her CBC outdoor column, 'The Great Wide Open' focuses on nuanced stories about life outdoors. It airs province-wide every two weeks. You can find Ash and more of her stories on Twitter @AshDKelly.