Talking Trash: The History Of Our Garbage

Show Notes

In this episode, I want to trash talk and take a brief flight through history (with some fun facts along the way) about the ways we have dealt with our garbage since the beginning of time. Taking a look at our past present to help us to better understand waste so we can shift our perception of it for a better future!

Waste is a piece of humankind’s puzzle

Today we are going to talk trash! Not the gossiping kind of trash, but real, actual trash. A brief overview on the evolution of trash to be exact! A lot of the modern conveniences we often take for granted have a long history. And although there is a technical difference between garbage, trash and waste – I’m going to use them interchangeably in this episode!

I have some questions for you – do you pay attention to how much you throw away? Or when you do throw something away, have you ever thought about what life was like before there was the privilege of having a trash can on almost every corner or turn in a building? Or in most cases in America – one in almost every room?

Although you may or may not personally think about your trash – it’s something that is widely discussed today. What’s the best way to dispose of it – can it be recycled or composted or is it bound for a landfill? What are its impacts on human and planetary health?

But are we the only ones who have been trash-talking or has the problem of how to effectively handle our garbage been an issue throughout time? How did everyone that came before us deal with their trash? And, how did that bring us to still imperfect systems we have now.

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Waste management has always been a critical piece of humankind’s puzzle. And the methods we use to dispose of our trash have a huge impact on our communities, soil, air, water, and economy. Even with the multitude of trash cans and recycling at our fingertips – we still are dealing with litter and trash in areas where it should not be.

The Stone Age

In the Stone Age, what Homo Sapiens ate, used, and subsequently discarded largely gave back to the earth through decomposition since they didn’t have the means for creating things that weren’t made from the earth. Their clothes and shelter were made of animal hide and things foraged from the land. Their jewelry was made of shells.

During that time people were nomads. There were no permanent settlements to worry about trash piling up and having to deal with it. By the time they got back around to it – nature had already done its thing. So leaving waste as they went so it was never an issue.

That was until about 10,000 BC when the earliest humans found out they could farm and herd animals so they settled down into villages, which became towns, which became cities. By settling down and producing more waste in one place – the problems with what to do with our trash began.

Ancient Mesopotamia
Around 5000-4000 BC we find ourselves at the rise of Mesopotamia, the first urban civilization. Mesopotamia as you may think of is was known for its prosperity and its history in the development of the first written language, and subsequently literature, math and astronomy, and many other inventions like the wheel. But your image may not have included the fact that the landscape of Mesopotamia was largely made up of trash.

In fact, they would pile up trash in the streets which would gradually raise the level of the road. It is said that every once in a while they would put a new layer of clay on the road over the trash, so people would have to build stairs down to their homes or even build new doors that were at the level of the street!

They did have large dumping locations, with one of the largest being 7 and a half acres long and 7 meters deep – but it was unsure how all of the trash made it to one place since they didn’t have official municipal waste systems.

And let’s tack on to this that there was the issue of physical trash (like the unused urn for your oil) along with human waste and wastewater that they usually dumped into their water systems or onto the streets as well. Can you imagine the smell on their morning stroll?

The First Landfills

The first official rudimentary landfills are said to have existed for over 5000 years In Knossos, Crete. Around 3,000 BC archaeological evidence showed that there were large dirt pits where citizens would fill until full of their trash and then cover up with dirt. This actually made sense to do back then, but it wasn’t regulated or widely adopted.

Finally in 500 B.C. Athens, Greece established the first municipal dump and created laws about their trash. They required garbage to be thrown away at least one mile from the city walls. They also established a law that made it illegal to throw garbage on the streets. As the clean freak I am, I would be so stoked!

Roman Sanitation
And the Romans around this time built the first sewer systems to move their waste into the Tiber River. They were actually really proud of it and named it Cloaca Maxima which means “Greatest Sewer” it is still being used today. In 200 AD, the Romans designed the first official sanitation organization, where they would send groups of two to pick up trash from the streets.

Continuing our little magic carpet ride across time and space – we can see Monte Testaccio, a famous mound in Rome. It is composed of the accumulation of trash in the Tiber floodplain – constructed almost wholly from the fragments of nearly 25 million clay amphorae ( the vessels used to carry oil) during the renaissance period. Later on, Rome used these shards of clay as a quarry for road construction and even to construct the vaulted ceilings of St Peter’s Basilica.

Monte Tesaccio is still visible today – situated in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Rome surrounded by hip restaurants and nightclubs! And archaeologists are still using the trash they find there to gain more information about the culture during that time.

For the most part, though, people lived with their trash. It was prevalent no matter what they did with it – for lack of trying or otherwise. They used it, reused it at some point, or piled it in areas where people could still see the impacts of their waste.

Ancient Recycling
Pompeii is an interesting example of how different cultures used to deal with trash. Archaeologist Allison Emmerson found that instead of the “out of sight out of mind” methods we use today – the people of Pompeii lived among their trash and would collect it in piles and sort it for recycling or reuse. Preserved trash was discovered outside of the walls of the city and even piled in the public burial tombs that were located throughout the streets.

It is suggested that their perception of trash as disposable was just different than ours – not that they were unorganized or didn’t know how to deal with it.

But they weren’t the first to reuse or recycle. Dating back to 2000 B.C. China developed methods of composting and recycling things like bronze for future use. And in 1031 Japan had the first recorded instances of paper recycling to maximize output and save resources. People throughout time reused materials due to lack of resources and the long process it took to create something new.

Middle Ages
Fast forward to the Middle Ages, and people were still struggling to manage their waste effectively. People threw their garbage in the streets. They had pigs eat the waste, which inevitably caused them to fall ill. And with waste, there came rats, which caused devastation like the bubonic plague. Otherwise known as “The Black Plague,” which killed 25 million people in just 5 years.

It was then that you see the implementation of laws that prevent people from dumping their waste in public waterways and streets. In Britain, they implemented laws to have people keep their trash inside until people they deemed “rakers” picked it up weekly and put it into a cart for disposal. Forging the way for waste management workers as we know them today. At the beginning of 15th century Germany, prisoners were used for transporting waste into fields as fertilizer – showing who they emphasized to do the dirty work.

But even with new measures most people generally would burn, dispose of their trash by dumping it nearby or in waterways, or just let it pile up!

The Age of Sanitation
It wasn’t until the period between the 16th and 19th centuries in Europe when the modern Age of Sanitation began and people started to worry about public health and cleanliness because of the overwhelming amounts of trash.

There were still issues in England going on around mass scavenging and unsanitary urban conditions due to the trash which was spreading cholera and typhus. Coal production increased which is why scavenging of the waste increased. There were “Dustmen” who would sell anything including discarded ashes and things I don’t even want to mention to make a buck! So to clean things up, they implemented the Public Health Act of 1875. They implemented the first concept of a movable garbage receptacle where you would store ash waste and it was picked up weekly. You’d even be charged if your bin was empty!

Coming across to America – we finally started implementing some changes. In 1654, New Amsterdam, now New York City made it illegal to throw their trash into the streets. In 1757, the first American municipal street cleaning operation was started by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and he encouraged people to dig pits and for their trash.

Americans and Trash
With the boom of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, there was a huge uptick in garbage. We started to produce synthetic materials that couldn’t be decomposed. Things like plastic, paper, and even some metals.

Mass production meant that people could buy the next best thing at a cheaper price. Out with the old, in with the new.

Trash dumping continued to be popular in America, until 1864, when health officials connected the spread of Yellow Fever in Memphis, Tennessee with massive garbage piles throughout the city. This outbreak killed 20,000 people so laws were then enacted for residents to take their garbage to specific locations on the outskirts of town and trash dumping wasn’t allowed on the streets.

And remember those pigs I talked about cleaning up the streets? Even up until the late 19th century early 20th century you could find piggeries across the US, like the biggest one in Worcester, Massachusetts, that would let pigs by the thousands roam to consume up to 10 tons of waste daily. (You think we would’ve learned this isn’t a great idea for people or pigs!) The pigs started to foul up the water sources and they even died themselves from food-borne illnesses.

Needless to say that eventually this process ended and we made the shift towards sanitary landfills (the 1900s) and incinerators that had been developed at the end of the 19th century in London. We also finally picked up the use of garbage bins!

But things just stayed the same for a while, and we were mostly just dumping where we could. “The amount of packaging produced and disposed of increased 67% after World War II.” and we officially became known as a throwaway society.

The EPA says that from 1946-1970 we dumped almost 89,000 containers of radioactive wastes into our oceans. Like are you kidding me?? And to make matters worse, we then saw a boom in plastic use in the 1960s. In 1965 the Solid Waste Disposal Act was passed to promote healthier air and better technologies and regulations for municipal and industrial waste systems.

The Clean Air Act was passed in the US in 1970 to regulate air conditions. This shut down incinerators without air pollution controls. But we still use incinerators today, and 23 states in the US classify incineration of trash as “renewable” But the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives say that, “three to five times more energy can be saved through alternative strategies such as waste prevention, reuse, recycling, and composting than can be generated by burning.” And these incinerators are located in areas that are disproportionally made up of low-income, People of Color- making the air toxic for people in those areas.

Trash isn’t history

Our systems haven’t been perfect, and they still aren’t. But through exploring the past we can see how waste plays such a big role in the development and quality of our lives. It gives us perspective on how we have managed trash (or not managed trash at all), its effects, and how we can evolve to use it in the future.

Looking at our history and comparing it to where we now show the desperate need for us to invest in new, better technology, and use our capital to create infrastructures to support true zero waste goals.

Trash isn’t history. We are accumulating it at a rate that we can’t effectively handle without massive action. Just as Mesopotamia saw the waste issues that came with an increase in concentrated population, we are seeing that all over the world today. Every year we are generating 1.3 billion tons of waste on the planet that is then dumped onto land sites or oceans. The thought of living with your and others’ waste isn’t just an idea but a reality for a lot of people across the world.

World Bank says that “More than half the world’s population does not have access to regular trash collection,” and “Unregulated or illegal dumpsites serve about 4 billion people and hold over 40% of the world’s waste.” The World Health Organization says that “2.0 billion people still do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines.”

Even in LA, there have been past concerns of another bubonic plague outbreak due to the large mounds of trash that litter the streets. Giving eerie flashbacks to the Black Plague and how we are still at risk because of waste mismanagement.

We still have a LONG way to go in managing our waste effectively and getting to a zero-waste, cingular economy that can help us live on Hometown: Earth more harmoniously.

Trash and recycling as we know it today have recently changed due to China banning imports of mixed paper and plastic and heavily restricted other scraps. Because for years, we have shipped the world’s plastic bottles and boxes to China. Wall Street Journal reported that since 1992, China has imported 45% of the world’s plastic waste. Now we are coming to terms with finding alternatives, and some are dropping recycling programs altogether.

But the silver lining here (we all love a silver lining don’t we?) But the silver lining is that we do have the technology, intelligence, and wherewithal to do better. You know, our garbage truck and incinerator technology have dramatically improved, but those should be the last option.

We can’t take our magic carpet far into the future to see what the best solution is, but we can look to countries that are innovative in trash management and build it into their values. Here are a few examples:

Germany is the first example. They created a revolutionary “green-dot” dual recycling system which leads to the recycling rates rising from 3% in 1991 to 56.1% in 2016. The way it works is that manufacturers and retailers have to pay for a “Green Dot” on products – covering the recovery and recycling of it. So the more packaging there is on the product the higher the fee is. So as you can guess, companies started to get pretty creative with less packaging and paper. This also emphasizes the citizens to dispose of the recycling in the correct bin that is parallel to existing municipal bins.

Japan is the second example. Japan didn’t adopt sewage systems and waste management controls until the end of the 1800s. But they are one of the most advanced countries in the world when it comes to zero waste. They even made the Olympic medals out of recycled materials! Again, citizens use rigorous separation methods and there is an intricate recycling pickup system. As a culture, they value saving and reusing resources.

The third example might surprise you – Taiwan. I love this example because Taiwan had the nickname “Garbage Island.” In the 90s they were overrun by a booming economy and growing consumption and only collected 70% of its trash – littering or burning off the rest. Through community outcries, they were able to implement new structures of recycling. One that allows for multiple trash and recycling pickups daily (where they help you sort your recycling), pay as you throw away bags, smart recycling booths that add value to your transit cards when you recycle, inventive ways of reuse and recycling, and potential fines for improperly disposing of their trash. Their waste rates are down, recycling rates are up, and now their incinerators are running below capacity. They say it’s a question of will, not way, that made the change work!

Something to Grow On

As you can see there is a common thread that runs through these examples – responsibility and will. Whether it is the individual or the business, we all share a collective responsibility to do our part and we have to be willing to step up and take the time to do it right.

We need to face our waste head-on. I’m not suggesting that we go back to piling waste up in corners of our homes or the streets. But there is something to be said about being less careless with our trash – taking responsibility for it as our own. Making sure that it doesn’t just go out of our door and turn into someone else’s problem. There is no such thing as “away.” We need to view trash as something that isn’t disposable – but something that we put out into the world and feel good about where it is going.

So on this week’s something to grow on I want you to consider what taking responsibility means to you. Is it facing your trash consumption and implementing a plan to do your part? Is it taking the time to contact your local government recycling to make sure you’re properly recycling? Or go to a city council meeting and requesting for further recycling measures or municipal composting? It might be picking up trash once a day for a week. Maybe it’s only buying from companies with recyclable materials or not buying anything new at all!

Or ya know maybe it is waiting an extra week to take your trash out and see what spending time with your waste makes you realize.

Consider what taking responsibility for your trash means to you and take action.

Richard Rogers said, “The only way forward if we are going to improve the quality of the environment, is to get everybody involved.“ And I am glad we are doing it all together.

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