The Green Shed Canberra: Strange things found at the rubbish tip shop

Environment Friendly Living

CHARLIE Bigg-Wither remembers the day his colleague discovered a dead body on Canberra’s West Belconnen rubbish tip back in late September 1992.

The tip worker initially “thought it was a mask,” Charlie explains, and only realised she was dealing with human remains when “she tried to pick it up.”

The body was found in the landfill section of the tip and wasn’t in good shape.

“I think it had actually been run over by the compactor at the time. It had already been dumped and bulldozed and squashed,” Charlie recalls.

Chinese national, Zhou Zhong, 24, had been living in Australia as a student for just over two years before he was stabbed to death.

The coroner issued warrants for the arrest of a man and woman in relation to the crime but the pair had returned to China. No arrests have ever been made and the case was never solved.

While Charlie says that’s the only time he recalls a body being found, tip workers continually come across “all sorts of weird and wonderful things.”

He reels off a list that includes jewellery, guns, rocket launchers, helicopters propellers, knives, ammunition, bones, people’s ashes, money and drugs.

On the day live German hand grenades from World War II were found, “we had to call a bomb squad to take them away,” Charlie says.

“We have a good working relationship with the police,” he adds with a wry smile.

Canberra’s Mugga Lane tip — where all manner of treasures and horrors have been found.

In one capacity or another, Charlie and his wife, Sandie Parkes, have been working on Canberra’s tips for 25 years.

Even though the pair met through Charlie’s sister, Sandie jokes that their relationship “was romance on the tip.”

To mark the rubbish dump’s significance in their lives, Sandie and Charlie even named their first jointly owned cat “Tip Face.”

Back in the late 1980s, the salvaging business at Canberra’s two tips was called “Revolve.” The organisation was staffed by passionate, eccentric people and has since become the stuff of urban legend.

By way of example, Charlie tells me about the day there were US bank notes flying all over the tip in the wind. A worker dutifully “kept walking around and picking them all up,” he says. The collected currency added up to more than $US3,500.

“People throw money out, quite often on a daily basis,” Charlie says, explaining that this may be a few coins here or there or “little stashes of notes” such as the $1,300 that was hidden in a discarded fruit juicer.

“We go out of our way to return lost treasures like money or jewellery or war medals,” Sandie says.

A piece of trench art found at the tip. It’s thought to be a home made cigarette lighter fashioned out of bullets from World War One. It’s also a little piece of Digger humour, because it’s a lighter made to look like a matchbook. Picture: Richard Tuffin.

The story of the bank notes reminds Charlie of another incident involving a safe.

“Someone was moving house and they brought us their safe, dropped it off to us, we just put it out on the shelf to sell, and because it was locked no one bought it.

“Two or three weeks later the guy came back in a panic, and it was still sitting on the shelf [and] still had all the family jewels in it. He was a very lucky man!” Charlie laughs.

Sandie recalls the time she was working on face of the tip and came across a liquid-filled jar with a heart in it.

“It was actually labelled ‘Human Heart’,” she says, and “just looked like a jar from a science lab or something.”

That was a long time ago and she can’t recall what happened to it.

These days Sandie and Charlie co-own the ACT’s tip shops along with Goran ‘Tiny’ Srejic and Elaine Stanford. The business, now called

The Green Shed

, operates in three different locations, has 54 employees and serves 15,000 customers each week.

Tiny says customers — many of them old regulars — buy about 180,000 second-hand items per week. This amounts to more than nine million things that go to a new home each year.

On the day we visit the Green Shed’s shop in Canberra’s city centre, it’s filled to the brim with retro kitchenware and china, antique dolls and furniture, old typewriters, toys, bakelite knitting needles, musical instruments and haberdashery.

The Green Shed is full to the brim with stuff. About 20 per cent of it is found on the tip, and 80 per cent is brought in by customers. Picture: Richard Tuffin.
The inside of the Green Shed. Picture: Richard Tuffin.

The upside of the job, Charlie says, is that “every time we come to work we find something different.”

But there’s a downside too.

“After Christmas we get a lot of stuff thrown away because people just don’t want their presents or the presents are broken. It just really shows how consumer based our society is, I suppose,” he says.

The other thing that happens “quite often,” Charlie says, is growers dumping hydroponic marijuana crops which have apparently gone “a little bit wrong” and become “contaminated or something like that.”

Three months ago “a whole pantech [truck] full of dope got dumped at Mitchell transfer station and we just rang the police and they came and took it all away,” he says.

Recently Sandie came across an elderly man who was moving into a nursing home. He brought trunks full of “really old, old tools” collected over a lifetime to the tip because there was no one to give them to.

“That’s sad when you see what people collect their whole lives, and they love it and cherish it but it ends up discarded,” she says.

After working in waste management so long, Sandie says she’s no longer tempted to keep items even if they are beautifully made, rare or nostalgic.

“You see it, you hold it, you appreciate it, and you let it go [and] the next day more stuff comes in,” she says.

Sometimes though, there’s an exception. Sandie takes me up into The Green Shed’s office and shows me a tiny Bible, which fits into the palm of her hand. Inscribed in the front in beautiful, slightly faded ink handwriting it says: “From Mother, Nov 11th 1915 On his departure from Australia.”

Sandie holds the tiny bible inscribed with “From Mother, Nov 11th 1915 On his departure from Australia.” Picture: Richard Tuffin

“The funny thing is,” Sandie says, “it’s kind of formal really. He’s going off to war. In the back she’s put her name and address which I thought was a bit unusual too.”

According to the inscription, the mother’s name was M Berryman and she lived in the Victorian town of Ballarat on High Street.

Along with the inscription was this address. Though it’s specific, Sandie still hasn’t been able to find the decendents of its owner. Picture: Richard Tuffin.

Captured by the unknown history of this tiny tome, Sandie researched the family and attempted, without success, to find relatives that might still live in the area.

“There was only one person that died in World War I who came from Ballarat and left Australia at this time and it wasn’t this person.

“I think whoever got this [Bible] survived and came back.

“With the Bible we found this invitation to a Billy Graham [Christian evangelist] church meeting from the 50s. I think he grew up and became a Billy Graham follower,” she says.

Telling this story, Sandie’s eyes fill with tears and she apologises, explaining this long lost book somehow “made me think of my own sons.”

If you know what happened to the Berryman family from Ballarat, please get in touch.

Remember there are strict rules about what you can or can’t dump at the tip in Canberra. If in doubt, check



Ginger Gorman is an award winning print and radio journalist, and a 2006 World Press Institute Fellow. Follow her on twitter:


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