Education is a vital component of ensuring that waste is managed responsibly. We all should know where our waste is coming from, the steps we can do to decrease our waste production, and how we can influence others to think about their habits. You’ve hopefully learned this and more as you’ve explored Begin with the Bin.
Below you will find a historic overview of waste management from ancient to modern times.
History of Waste Management
Throughout history, human progress has been intrinsically tied to the management of waste due to its effect on public and environmental health. Waste management has affected human history in many ways just as it will in the future. The modern waste management industry has come far and with recycling and other advances – we are poised to go further. Below is a timeline of significant developments in waste management history.
Ancient History (10,000 BC to 400 AD)
In early human history, waste was mainly composed of ash from fires, wood, bones, and vegetable waste. The edible matter was used to feed animals and what remained was disposed of in the ground where it would decompose. The excavation of ancient rubbish dumps by archeologists reveals only tiny amounts of ash, broken tools and pottery, telling us that these early civilizations reused and repaired what they could.
Archeological excavations of the dirt or clay floors of these earliest living quarters have found that bits of waste matter that fell on the floor was simply packed into the floor over time or brushed aside. Archeologists have referred to this as the “fringe effect.” Households would bring in a supply of clean, fresh clay to spread over littered floors, resulting in the rise of elevation across early population centers. However, this solution became less viable as both population density and waste generation increased. As city populations grew, waste management systems became necessary to handle the waste stream. Crete, Athens and Rome are examples of ancient civilizations that began to establish rudimentary waste management systems. Rome established an organized waste collection teams to collect waste piled up in the streets. These workers transported the material in wagons to pits outside the city.
Bronze scrap recovery systems were in place in Europe.
Early records from the Han Dynasty (ca. second century BC) suggest that composting was a part of life in China as early as 2000 BC. These records include “fertilizer recipes” listing human excreta, animal waste, straw, plant ash, etc.
Archeological evidence shows that in the Cretan capital, Knossos, the Minoan people created dump sites where waste was placed in large pits and covered with earth.
Historical records indicate that Athenians institutionalized techniques similar to those used in Crete by mandating that waste be deposited no less than one mile from the city and banning the dumping of refuse in city streets.
First century AD
Sheol was a dump outside of Jerusalem that periodically burned. It became synonymous with “Hades” or “hell” and is referenced in the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) and the Islamic Quran. For example, the Bible writes “Your love for me is great; you have rescued me from the depths of Sheol (Psalm 86:13).”
Archeological discoveries show that the Mayan Indians of Central America had dumps, which exploded occasionally and probably often burned. They also recycled their inorganic waste into fill for building projects.
The first sanitation force is created by the Romans. Teams of two men walked along the streets picking up garbage and throwing it in a wagon.
 Pichtel, John, Waste Management Practices: Municipal, Hazardous, & Industrial, 2nd Edition, 2014
Middle Ages (400 AD to 1588 AD)
Until urban populations boomed, the garbage was not a threat. However, as cities grew, trash began piling up. When it piled up, it caused a stench, harbored rats and other pests, contaminated water supplies and led to the transmission of disease. The plagues that affected Europe from the 14th to the 16th centuries were often spread by the vermin that thrived in unsanitary urban conditions prevalent at that time. Some of the greatest plagues to curse humanity resulted from these unsanitary living conditions. Early waste management techniques developed during this period as a way to prevent the spread of disease.
Reuse and recycling existed, too, as a normal part of everyday life. Early recycling included feeding vegetable waste to livestock and using green waste as fertilizer. Pigs were often used as an efficient method of disposing of organic waste. Timber was salvaged and reused in construction and ship-building. Materials such as gold were melted down and re-cast numerous times.
In response to the increasing amount of waste deposited in towns in Britain, a law is passed requiring householders to keep the front of their house clear from refuse. It was largely ignored.
The Black Death spread to Western Europe and North Africa during the 1340s, resulting in an estimated 75 million deaths worldwide. The plague is estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population.
By the end of 1350 the peak of the Black Death subsided, but there would continue to be outbreaks over the next few hundred years. The Great Plague of London in 1665-1666 is generally recognized as one of the last major outbreaks.
English “Rakers” (who earlier were responsible for sweeping human excreta from gutters where chamber pots and privies were emptied) were ordered by King Edward III to rake all refuse from streets and alleys and remove it once a week. These men were some of the earliest garbagemen. They generally loaded the waste into carts and deposited it in the Thames or Fleet rivers.
The English Parliament bans dumping of waste in ditches and public waterways.
Garbage piles build up so high outside the gates of Paris that they interfere with the city’s defenses. Accounts tell of enemy soldiers clambering up the massive garbage piles to storm medieval city walls.
The English government ruled that household rubbish was to remain indoors until it could be removed by the rakers (and either sold as compost or dumped in marshes). This preliminary attempt to manage and control waste was not particularly successful, but paved the way for further regulation.
Medieval German cities require wagons bringing produce into the city to also carry waste out of the city to the countryside.
Spanish copper mines use scrap iron for the cementation of copper, a recycling practice still used today.
A Stratford-upon-Avon court record shows that Shakespeare’s father was fined for ‘‘depositing filth in a public street.’’
Elizabeth I grants special privileges for the collection of rags for papermaking in England.
Early America and the Industrial Revolution (1657 AD – 1899 AD)
During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, Europe and the United States were rapidly developing in areas of product innovation, machinery development, and trade. These advances were stimulated by the availability of raw materials and growing ranks of laborers. This time of growth also created significantly greater amounts of waste. Government officials and the public alike were concerned. To avoid the potential problems associated with unmanaged waste in urban areas, the ““Age of Sanitation”” began. Many communities organized waste collection and instituted disposal systems in this sweeping effort aimed at maintaining public health.
These efforts did not put an end to scavengers, who performed a recycling function by selling what they could find in ’the rubbish. They were even able to sell dog feces, used by tanners for treating leather. Scavengers could be innovative. In England, scavengers were even classified by what they collected. They included:
- Toshers, who worked in the sewers and were able to find coins, bits of metal, ropes and sometimes even jewelry.
- Mud-larks, who scavenged river banks for salvageable material.
- Dustmen, who collected ash from coal fires. These men, women and children worked at dust yards to sieve the brieze (coarse section of the dust) from the finer portions so it could be used as a soil conditioner. The “fines” could be mixed with clay to make bricks.
New Amsterdam (now New York) passes a law against dumping waste in the streets.
Rittenhouse Mill, America’s first paper mill, opens in Philadelphia and made paper from recycled cotton, linen, and used paper.
Colonists in Virginia commonly bury their trash. Holes are filled with building debris, broken glass or ceramic objects, oyster shells and animal bones. They also throw away hundreds of suits of armor that were sent to protect them from arrows of native inhabitants.
Benjamin Franklin leads an effort to petition the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop commercial waste dumping in Philadelphia and remove tanneries from Philadelphia’s commercial district, which some historians consider the beginning of the environmental movement.
Benjamin Franklin starts the first American municipal street-cleaning operation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The first metal recycling in America occurs when patriots in New York City melted down a statue of King George III and made it into bullets.
Benjamin Franklin uses slaves to carry Philadelphia’’s waste downstream.
Charleston, WV, enacts a law protecting vultures from hunters, as the birds helped eat the city’s garbage.
A report in Great Britain links disease to filthy environmental conditions and helps launch the “Age of Sanitation.”
The Public Health Act of 1848 begins the process of waste regulation in Britain.
Junk dealers in Reno, NV, scavenge personal belongings from the Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails, where pioneers had abandoned items on their long trek west.
Residents of Washington, DC, dump garbage and slop into alleys and streets, resulting in animals like pigs and dogs roaming freely throughout the city. Rats and cockroaches infest most dwellings, including the White House.
Health officials in Memphis, TN, hypothesize a possible correlation between the spread of Yellow Fever in the Memphis area and the garbage being dumped throughout the city. To reduce the threat of disease, residents are told to take their garbage to specific locations on the edge of town.
New York City’’s Metropolitan Board of Health declares war on garbage, forbidding the “throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets.” (Years later, it is reported that New York scavengers still removed 15,000 horse carcasses annually, most of which had belonged to the city and pulled street cars.)
New York stops dumping its garbage from a platform built over the East River (but they continue dumping it into the Atlantic Ocean for decades).
Energy from waste begins its development in Great Britain as the first “destructor” is designed and constructed in Nottingham. Destructors are prototype incineration plants that burn mixed fuel producing steam to generate electricity. Over the next 30 years, 250 destructors are built, but they fall out of favor because emissions (ashes, dust, charred paper, etc.) fall onto surrounding neighborhoods.
In order to prevent mass scavenging and to cleanup the country, the British Public Health Act of 1875 is created to give authority to waste collection. From this act comes the first concept of a movable garbage receptacle. This first concept is created to store ash waste and is collected/emptied weekly.
Memphis, TN, Mayor John Flippin organizes garbage collection at homes and businesses using small wooden carts pulled by mules.
Historical data shows that less than one quarter of America’’s cities can boast of a municipally organized system for disposing of waste.
The first American garbage incinerator is built on Governor’s Island, NY. (Over the next two decades, nearly 200 garbage incinerators are built throughout the United States.)
In Washington, DC, a health officer reports that “Appropriate places for [refuse] are becoming scarcer year by year, and the question as to some other method of disposal ... must soon confront us. Already the inhabitants in proximity to the public dumps are beginning to complain...”
The British Paper Company is established specifically to make paper and board from recycled materials. The recycled materials are obtained from organizations such as the Salvation Army and rag-and-bone men.
It is reported that as many as 750,000 watermelon rinds are discarded during the summer months in New York.
The Boston Sanitary Committee finds that to get rid of their garbage and avoid paying fees for its collection, a number of citizens “burned it, wrapped it up in paper and carried it on their way to work and dropped it when unobserved, or threw it into vacant lots or into the river.”
Harper’s Weekly reports that “...the garbage problem is the one question of sanitation that is uppermost in the minds of local authorities [in the United States].”
The citizens of Alexandria, VA, become disgusted by the sight of barge loads of garbage floating down the Potomac River from Washington, DC. They start sinking the barges upriver from their community.
New York’s Street Cleaning Commissioner organizes the first U.S. comprehensive system of public-sector garbage management. The service employs 2,000 white-clad employees, known as “White Wings,” to clear the streets and cart off garbage to dumps, incinerators, the Atlantic Ocean and the very first U.S. waste sorting plant for recycling.
Waste reduction plants, which compress organic wastes to extract grease, oils, and other by-products, are introduced to the U.S. from Vienna. These plants later are closed because of their noxious emissions.
The Federal Rivers and Harbors Act restricts dumping in all navigable rivers in order to keep them open for shipping.
Modern Waste Management (1900 to Present)
Our modern era has been marked by Europe, the United States and other parts of the developed world establishing more organized waste collection and landfill programs. A variety of regulations affecting solid waste management have been imposed, and technologies have evolved to dramatically improve the waste industry and in turn human health and well-being.
In 1900, there was still significant progress to be made. For instance, piggeries were facilities where swine were fed fresh or cooked garbage. This clearly had potential public health implications. An expert estimates that 75 pigs could consume 1 ton of refuse per day. Though efficient in processing garbage, the practice fell out of favor (so much so that some 400,000 hogs were slaughtered in the mid-1950s to prevent the spread of disease).
By 1910, nearly 80 percent of American cities had some sort of organized solid waste collection. The earliest of these involved men collecting waste with horse or mule-drawn carts. With the advent of the automobile, garbage trucks began to roll on American streets
By the 1920s, dumps became a popular waste disposal method in which wetlands were simply filled with layers of garbage, ash and dirt. They are a far cry from today’s landfills. Modern landfillsare highly technical enterprises that are built with safety and environmental protection in mind, carefully engineered and monitored to protect the groundwater, minimize odors and pests, control emissions, and increasingly, to serve as sources of energy generation.
The composition of waste has changed over the last century. Many people now live in apartments and fewer people cook or heat with fires that produce ash and cinders. Changes in society such as increased mobility with the automobile, the rise of supermarkets and a steep rise in packaging have led to modern living standards that include dedicated waste management regimes.
Composition of Waste (UK, 1892-2002)
The passage of the Clean Air Act in the United States in 1970 led to the closure of many early incinerators without air pollution controls. These incinerators have been replaced by modern waste-to-energy plants that include pollution controls adept at removing particles and reducing gas emissions to minute levels while producing enough electricity to power more than 1 million homes.
In recent decades, the solid waste industry has pioneered other technologies, such as recycling, recognizing that today’s waste stream is the feedstock for tomorrow’s products. In a relatively short time frame, recycling has become a fully-developed technology. As of 2012, more than 34.5 percent of American municipal solid waste is recycled or composted, conserving vital resources and energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting air and water quality.
The solid waste industry now serves more as a resource management industry. It continues to lead in responding to the most pressing environmental concerns of the day. Today, we are leaders in responding to concerns raised by climate change, the most dominant global environmental issue. Industry innovation allows us to capture greenhouse gas from landfills, use it as a source of renewable and sustainable energy, and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil.
127 U.S. cities surveyed in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study provide regular collection of refuse.
The nation’s first two major aluminum recycling plants open in Cleveland and Chicago.
New York begins using a garbage incinerator to generate electricity to light the Williamsburg Bridge.
By this year, 102 of 180 incinerators built since 1885 have been abandoned or dismantled. Many had been inadequately built or run.
City beautification programs become more and more popular. Many cities have juvenile sanitation leagues whose members pledge to keep streets and neighborhoods clean. Sanitation workers often wear white uniforms, suggestive of other public workers such as doctors and nurses.
In the New York boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Bronx, citizens produce about 4.58 pounds of refuse each day. Yearly collection per capita includes 141 pounds of wet garbage, 1,443 pounds of ash and 88 pounds of dry rubbish.
Shortages of raw materials during World War I prompt the federal government to start the Waste Reclamation Service, part of the War Industries Board. Its motto is “Don’t Waste Waste - Save It.” At this time, the U.S. is producing 15,000 tons of paper a day – using 5,000 tons of old paper in the process.
U.S. cities begin switching from horse-drawn to motorized refuse collection equipment.
Austrian inventor Jacob Ochsner and French inventor Ferrnand Rey begin building hydraulic rear loader compactor trucks in Europe.
Communities on the New Jersey shore obtain a court order forcing New York to stop dumping garbage in the Atlantic Ocean. On July 1, 1934, the Supreme Court upholds the lower court action, but applies it only to municipal waste, not commercial or industrial waste.
The first American mass-production, hydraulic rear-load refuse packer compactor truck (Load Packer by Garwood) is introduced. It is patented in 1938. Due to World War II, it will not be widely used until the late 1940s. Following the war, three major competitors (Sicard, Leach and Heil) will introduce competing products.
Americans collect rubber, paper, scrap metal, fats, and tin cans to help the war effort. The sudden surge of waste paper loads markets and prices drop from $9 to $3 per ton.
The American Society of Civil Engineers published the standard guide to sanitary landfilling. To guard against rodents and odors, the guide suggested compacting the refuse and covering it with a layer of soil each day.
The National Solid Wastes Management Association is founded. NSWMA is the trade association representing for-profit companies in North America that provide solid, hazardous and medical waste collection, recycling and disposal services.
The first federal solid waste management law, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, authorizes research and provides for state grants.
By this year, more than 33 percent of U.S. cities collect waste that is separated in some manner.
President Johnson commissions the “National Survey of Community Solid Waste Practices,” providing the first comprehensive data on solid waste since the 1800s.
The U.S. celebrates the first Earth Day on April 22.
The Resource Recovery Act amends the Solid Waste Disposal Act and requires the federal government to issue waste disposal guidelines.
The Clean Air Act establishes federal authority to fight urban smog and air toxins. The new regulations lead to the closure of many earlier-constructed incinerators that could not adequately control their air pollution.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is created.
Oregon passes the nation’s first bottle bill. By offering cash for aluminum, glass and plastic containers, it removes about 7 percent of its garbage from the waste stream.
The Federal Clean Water Act is enacted to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.
The first buy-back centers for recyclables are opened in Washington state. They accept beer bottles, aluminum cans and newspapers.
The first city-wide use of curbside recycling bins occurs in University City, MO, for collecting newspapers.
By this time, all 50 states have some solid waste regulations, although content varies widely from state to state.
The passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act creates the first significant role for federal government in waste management. The law emphasizes recycling and conserving energy and other resources, and launches the nation’s hazardous waste management program.
The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act is passed following the Arab oil embargo. The act guarantees a market for energy created by small power producers and encourages growth of the waste-to-energy industry and methane recovery from landfills.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that garbage is protected by the dormant Commerce Clause; therefore, New Jersey cannot ban shipments of waste from Pennsylvania.
EPA issues landfill criteria that prohibit open dumping.
During the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, athletes, trainers, coaches and spectators produce 6.5 million pounds of trash in 22 days, more than 6 pounds per person per day (compared to the national average of 3.6 pounds produced per person per day at the time).
Hazardous and Solid Waste Act amendments and reauthorization to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act require tougher federal regulation of landfills.
Rhode Island enacts the nation’s first statewide mandatory recycling law, including aluminum and steel cans, glass, newspapers and #1 and #2 plastic. Citizens and businesses are required to separate recyclables from trash.
Fresh Kills on Staten Island, NY, becomes the largest landfill in the world.
Mobro 4000, the Islip, NY, garbage barge is rejected by six states and three countries. The barge garners lots of media attention and becomes a symbol for limited landfill capacity in the Northeast. The garbage is finally incinerated in New York and the ash brought to a landfill near Islip.
EPA estimates that more than 14,000 landfills closed since 1978, more than 70 percent of those that had been operating at that time.
Lacking disposal capacity, New Jersey exports more than 50 percent of its solid waste to neighboring states.
The Plastic Bottle Institute develops a material-identification code system for plastic bottle manufacturers (the current #1-#7 resin identification system).
Twenty-six states have passed comprehensive laws making recycling an integral part of waste management. Seven states require curbside separation of recyclables.
Between 1986 and 1989, 33 states consider or enact restrictions on out-of-state waste.
Arizona archeologist William Rathje recovers corn on the cob intact after 18 years in an Arizona landfill. His research indicates that some types of landfills have limited biodegradability.
Sudden growth in curbside collection of newspaper gluts the market. Prices drop to zero and some communities pay to have material taken away.
140 recycling laws have been enacted in 38 states and the District of Columbia.
McDonald’s announces plans to stop the use of polystyrene packaging of its food due to consumer protests.
Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced that they will begin using a bottle made of about 25 percent recycled plastic resin.
EPA releases landfill standards that included requirements for location, groundwater protection and monitoring and post-closure care.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in C.A. Carbone v. Town of Clarkstown, declares that flow control requirements are unconstitutional. Flow control refers to laws or policies that require or encourage waste materials to be disposed at designated disposal facilities.
NSWMA and the Waste Equipment Technology Association (WASTEC) merge to form the Environmental Industry Associations.
This year the number of landfills in the U.S. is approximately 2,800, down from an estimated 20,000 landfills in 1970. This significant decrease in the number of landfills in the U.S. is due to landfill closures forced by stricter regulatory programs.
The U.S. recycles 22.4 percent of the municipal solid waste stream compared to a 6.4 percent recycling rate in 1960. The U.S. composts 5.6 percent of the waste stream, incinerates 16.9 percent, and landfills the remaining 55.1 percent.
At this time, average state landfill capacity is more than 16 years.
The national average landfill tipping fee is $32, compared to a national average incinerator tipping fee of nearly $60 per ton.
New York’s Fresh Kills Landfill is closed. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation announces a plan to convert the former landfill into one of the nation’s largest city parks. Overtaking Fresh Kills in area measure are the Apex Regional Landfill in Apex, NV, and the Puente Hills Landfill in Whittier, CA.
According to the U.S. EPA, Americans recycle and compost 33.4 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, compared to a 6.4 percent recycling rate in 1960. The United States incinerates 12.6 percent of the waste stream and landfills the remaining 54.0 percent.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United Haulers Association v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority declares that local governments are permitted to engage in flow control to government-owned disposal facilities in specific circumstances.
The U.S. EPA reports that Americans generate 4.38 pounds of municipal solid waste per person and recycle or compost 34.5 percent of it. They incinerated about 12 percent and sent the rest to landfills.
Whittier, Calif.’s Puente Hills Landfill closes, making Apex Regional Landfill in Apex, NV, the largest landfill.
A new name for the Environmental Industry Associations (made up of NSWMA and WASTEC) is created. It is rechristened the National Waste & Recycling Association.
- Ace Disposal
- Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy
- The Association of Science-Technology Centers
- Black Plague (Wikipedia)
- History of Garbage Trucks
- Garbage In The Cities: Refuse Reform and the Environment by Martin Melosi
- The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death by John Kelly
- Modern Landfills - A Far Cry from the Past