History of Trash

    How did we get here?

    In the United States alone, the average person generates 4 pounds of trash each day. Multiply that by the number of US residents and the amount is unfathomable. Most communities are spending more on waste management than they are for school books, fire protection, libraries, and parks.

    But it was not always this way.

    Waste Management is a modern system that has been developing and improving over the last 100 years.

    At one time all people needed to do to get rid of their waste was to dig a whole and bury it. 

    The Mayans were known to have monthly rituals where waste would be gathered and burned.

    Thousands of years ago, human and animal waste were the major concerns. Resources were limited and the population was just a fraction of what it was today.  Even major cities were only a fraction of what they are today.

    In the year 1700, the population of New York City was 60,000 people. London and Paris averaged about 600,000 people during that same time. Today, Paris has just over 2 million people, London, almost 9 million people and New York CIty, over 20 million.

    More people means more waste.

    As these cities grew, the old methods of waste management no longer worked for the increasing numbers of people living in close proximity. This led to the spread of diseases and plagues.

    The first attempts at regulations regarding trash were recorded about 500 B.C in Athens, when people were no longer allowed to throw their trash in the streets. Instead any garbage needed to be taken one mile outside the city to be dumped. 

    But as cities grew, this was no longer enough to manage the problem. The piles quickly grew and one mile was not far enough away to keep away the stench or the animals that were attracted to it.

    Prior to 1600, garbage was not seen as a threat to people’s way of life. As a result there was no innovation or need for organized waste management in most areas.  There were not many options for what to do with your waste during this time period. People would either burn their personal trash and bury it, or let it pile up. 

    As New York grew, in 1657, in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) they had to pass a law against throwing garbage in the streets..

    Even Benjamin Franklin had a hand in trying to solve the growing garbage problems in major cities. While he was still living in London, around 1757, he started the first street cleaning service.

    In 1842, a report was produced, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, in the United Kingdom. It showed a link between disease and dirty environmental conditions. Thus began the “Age of Sanitation”.

    At the same time, in America, individual cities and states were responsible for their own waste management. The federal government was funding the infrastructure needed for sewers and water treatment, leaving no money for a garbage disposal system.

    What resulted was a lot of trial and error in different parts of the country as municipalities struggled to handle the growing waste, without regulation. New York City infamously dumped all of its trash into the ocean, until that was outlawed in the mid-1900s.  

    It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the US started to regulate where trash could be dumped.

    In 1934 the Supreme Court banned the dumping of municipal waste into the ocean.

    At the beginning of the 20th century, efforts at waste collection were concentrated in cities and large towns. Small towns would gather any raw or cooked food waste and feed it to pigs. Each pig could eat 25 pounds of waste a day. Anything that could not be fed to the pigs was buried or burnt. 

    Landfills were the next solution. In the 1960s they became regulated and widely used as a place to put trash in huge mounds away from large populations. 

    During the first and second world wars, there was a push to recycle items, mostly rubber, paper, and scrap metals. 

    However, after the end of World War II, the amount of packaging that was produced and discarded increased by over 65%, which mostly ended up in landfills. 

    At this same time, there was also a sharp increase in the types and widespread use of plastics. These plastics are still a challenge for waste management and recyclers to manage.

    It wasn’t until 1970 that the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and recycling and environmental impacts of all this waste were taken more seriously. 

    The EPA now sets the standards for groundwater protection, air quality, and landfill operations.

    There are now hazardous waste programs in all 50 states in the US.

    The Future

    We know that so much more can be done to reduce waste.

    We need to take steps in our own lives and out communities to keep moving in the right direction and eliminate waste.

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