A brief history of waste
By John Dillon, VP Marketing Superfy, 25 March 2023
When did we start waste management, and how has it evolved?
In the United States, the modern concept of solid waste management emerged in the 1980s, when a growing number of American cities provided a basic level of solid waste collection and disposal.
In the late 1700’s, Benjamin Franklin started the first waste collection service and street-cleaning service.
What is the history of waste management in the US?
- 1654 – New Amsterdam (now New York City) made it illegal to throw waste into the street. Pedestrians rejoiced!
- 1834 – Charleston, WV prohibited hunters from killing vultures because the birds helped consume the city’s garbage.
- 1872-1932 – Worcester, MA used pigs to consume the city’s garbage. At one point, the city’s “piggery” employed 8,000 swine who consumed over 10 tons of garbage daily. [source]
However, waste management (albeit not as modern) has been around for thousands of years. In Ancient Greece, the first recorded landfill was in 3000 BC, where large holes were dug into the earth to dump refuse. This method of waste management may not be the most sustainable – but it’s still widely used in some developing countries even today. [source]
Waste management has progressed differently all over the world, and there are some countries that have advanced, modern methods which enable them to have a cleaner, safer environment to live in.
Did you know:
- 1388 | The English Parliament bans the dumping of waste in ditches and public waterways.
- 1551 | German papermaker Andreas Bernhart begins placing his paper in coverings labelled with his name and address, thus devising the first recorded use of packaging.
- 1657 | New Amsterdam (now Manhattan, New York City) passes the first anti-littering law, making it illegal to throw or leave waste in the streets.
How has waste management changed over time?
Landfill is the oldest and most common form of waste disposal, although the systematic burial of the waste with daily, intermediate and final covers only began in the 1940s. The disposal of waste materials in landfill sites has its origins in Crete in 3000 BC where waste was placed into soil-covered pits. However, in the US and Europe, waste was primarily disposed of by dumping within cities until the 1800s when the link between poor environmental conditions and disease was identified. [source]
Landfill, although incredibly popular – isn’t the most sustainable method of waste management, and has raised methane levels, and greenhouse gases and ultimately has processed waste incorrectly.
However, when executed properly – landfill can be a valid (and often only) method of waste management, particularly in poorer or rural areas where access to better-quality waste management practices is unavailable.
Incinerators are considered a “modern” way of waste management due to when it was incepted, in 1874 in the United Kingdom, and within just over 10 years, the USA also adopted incineration as a waste management method. Although incineration is widely used across the globe, the major drawbacks include poisonous gases and pollutants that harm local air quality.
Early civilizations practised composting – and it’s one of the easiest “do it yourself” waste management systems you can adopt within your own home.
“Most early civilizations practised some form of composting by spreading manure and plant waste on fields to improve fertility. Researchers have found clay tablets from the Akkadian Empire, around 2350 BC, which are the first to speak of “making” compost for agricultural use.” [source]
Composting can be achieved even if you don’t have land or agricultural knowledge, with most countries in Europe and far-east Asia ranking as highest for composting and recycling combined.
Recycling is something that we’re all familiar with – from the recycling we do at home with paper, cardboard and metals to a larger, commercial scale.
But, recycling can also be a difficult form of waste management due to the mistakes that can be made by citizens – as well as the cost and time it takes: “Even so, when a city introduces a kerbside recycling program, the sight of all those recycling lorries trundling around can raise doubts about whether the collection and transportation of waste materials require more energy than it saves.” [source].
But, despite there being mixed reviews on how sustainable recycling is, it’s a huge part of our global ecosystem and one of the best ways – regardless of time – to reuse waste. Recycled clothes, plastic, glass and metal are just a few of our everyday items that can be 100% reused, despite the statistics showing that certain locations (and organizations) are still on the way to 100% recycled products and processes.
Did you know: “Germany recycles 70% of all waste produced, this is the most in the world. The country achieved this through their policies regarding waste, companies are held responsible for whether their packaging is recyclable, and when consumers purchase goods they are then responsible for the disposal of them.”
When did waste management become a problem?
As we already know, waste management isn’t “perfect” around the globe – and although many countries are making the correct steps to embody sustainable and earth-friendly waste management systems, there is still a long way to go.
However, by the 1960s – waste management became a serious problem. Public health experts began to sound the alarm about the implications of improper waste disposal and the necessity of different disposal protocols for specific types of waste. By the 1980s, regulations had been put in place as well as legal action which could be taken if the protocol wasn’t followed.
Today – we also have the waste management theory: Waste Management Theory is founded on the expectation that waste management is to prevent waste causing harm to human health and the environment. The proper definition of waste is crucial to constructing a sustainable agenda of waste management. It is largely the case that current legislation attends to existing waste.
The bottom line
Waste management – particularly efficient and sustainable – is all about education, financial aid, and accessibility. The more we educate ourselves on waste management on a personal level through how organizations, cities, countries and continents operate – the better our processes and approach to waste management will be.