The containers we know as skips first appeared on the streets of Britain in the early 60s. What prompted their sudden apparition was the growing problem of waste in the commercial and industrial sector. It was getting too expensive to send tipper wagons to places and wait for them to be hand loaded or loaded with shovels or grabs on sites. This was especially problematic with smaller sites, for example house renovations.
The idea to place a largish container at the front of the site gained currency rapidly as this system saved double handling of waste. The idea was borrowed from Germany where the skip industry was born. The skips and their wagons came over from Germany in very early 60s. A company called George Cross and Co of London pioneered the concept in Britain importing the equipment from the continent. It quickly became evident that there was a market.
In the early days the skips themselves were 5-6 cubic yard containers. There obviously was not the wide choice of container sizes we see today. Other than that very little has changed in 40 years. The wagons are the same four-wheel 15 ton gross as can be seen today.
The idea permeated the domestic market rapidly as householders saw skips on the street and saw them as a perfect way of ridding themselves of garden rubbish or clearing driveways. This was the beginning of the consumer society as we know it. People were buying more, the economy was booming, the make-do-and-mend mentality was scarcely fashionable any more. Design in the home was gaining in popularity and more and more people wanted to throw away the old and look forward to the modern, buoyant future.
At the beginning, the charge for a 6 yard skip was £5 plus 3 shillings a day rental. To put it into context, a good wagon driver could expect to earn £20 a week so the skip would have been a quarter of his wage. There was no VAT back then. To take a skip to landfill (or ‘the chute’ as it was called in common parlance) was 7 shillings and 6d ie 35p of today’s money. There was also the fuel, the cost of the wagon and skips and the driver’s wages to be paid. Profitability was tight even back then without the prohibitive landfill costs. But like any business, it largely depended on how the operation was run. You couldn’t have the lorries running around empty. In this respect, nothing has changed. The daily rental surcharge helped a lot as bonus money could be made that way.
In terms of regulation, there was none at all! At least not at first. Flytipping however was not so much a problem as it is now as cost of disposal relative to price of skip hire was not as high. 7% of skip cost was spent on landfill. Nowadays it can be as much as 60%. Skips placed on highways weren’t so much a problem at first because there weren’t many cars around but through the course of the 60s and into the 70s the problem became more acute as lack of regulation meant that wagon drivers could and did place skips in the most inappropriate of places.
It became necessary to begin to lobby parliament on these issues and in 1971 the Highways Act came out making the several points mandatory. Permits were to be obtained if skip was to be placed on public highway, skips were to be lamped if on public highway at night and the ends of the skips to be painted yellow.
The permits were free and the onus of lamping skips was largely on the customer. The skip company was absolved of any responsibility for unlamped skips if they could produce a docket signed by the customer agreeing to provision of lamps. This of course involved local authority inspectors roaming the street reporting on any skips incorrectly placed or presenting a health and safety hazard to the public.
The traditional yellow colour of skips stems from this act. Many tests were undertaken at the Road Transport Testing Laboratory in Crowthorne in Berkshire where legislators had fun driving round tracks determining the most visible colour in the darkness. It was proven that yellow rather than white was the colour that stood out most in badly lit conditions.