The History of Waste

Do you want to be a garbologist?

By Roberta Crowell Barbalace

The study of garbage has given us much insight into civilizations of yesteryear. It has been instrumental in solving crimes. It has even resulted in the fall of an American president.

Humans are by their very nature careless with trash. It is not a trait of the 20th century. Garbologists have discovered that people let trash fall where it may.

As the timeline of garbage history suggests (below), there has been a problem of trash from man's earliest time. Four basic means of dealing with trash have been used over and over in history. 1. Dumping 2. Burning 3. Recycling 4.Waste minimization

The Mayan Indians of Central America had dumps, which exploded occasionally and burned. They also recycled. Homemakers didn't sweep trash under their rugs. Some was trampled under foot and some was swept into corners. When it got too deep, they would bring in dirt to cover it.

Some cultures were very wasteful, considering everything disposable. Many Mayan sites demonstrated such careless consumption. Consumption and waste of resources is probably related to supply available more than any other factor. When gasoline is plentiful and cheap, automobiles get larger (nobody is thinking about future supplies). When it becomes scarce and expensive, automobiles get smaller.

Trash has played a tremendous role in history. The Bubonic Plague, cholera and typhoid fever, to mention a few, were diseases that altered the populations of Europe and influenced monarchies. They were perpetuated by filth that harbored rats, and contaminated water supply. It was not uncommon for Europeans to throw their garbage and even human wastes out of the window. They figured that stray dogs would eat whatever they threw out.

How does the waste we toss today compare to the waste that was thrown away by other civilizations? It is hard to be specific. Until recently trash quantity was calculated by volume not weight. Volume is dependant upon how much the trash is compacted. Weight is influenced by moisture content, which varies greatly depending upon climate and weather conditions. The various studies that have been conducted vary too greatly to get a clear picture of per capita refuse per day.

Studies fail to substantiate the notion that Americans are more wasteful than similar civilizations of the past. Note that the nature of the waste varies greatly from one civilization to another. There is an archeological account of Native Americans in Colorado about 6500 BC who killed 200 buffalo in one day and butchered 150 of them, carrying away enough meat to feed 150 people for 23 days. They left the remains behind (some 18,380 pounds of bones, which had remained for 6500 years. Soft tissue had decomposed years ago). 150 modern day Americans would produce about 14,150 pounds in 23 days, most of which would have decomposed rapidly. Based on the weight of the bones that remained, the Native Americans in that clan produced about 5.3 pounds of waste a day as compared to 2.5 pounds a day, which is a moderate figure for middle class American consumption.

A Timeline of Trash
6,500 BCNorth AmericaArcheological studies shows a clan of Native Americans in what is now Colorado produced an average of 5.3 pounds of waste a day.
500 BCAthens GreeceFirst municipal dump in western world organized. Regulations required waste to be dumped at least a mile from the city limits.
New Testament of BibleJerusalem PalestineThe Valley of Gehenna also called Sheoal in the New Testament of the Bible "Though I descent into Sheol, thou art there." Sheoal was apparently a dump outside of the city of that periodically burned. It became synonymous with "hell."
1388EnglandEnglish Parliament bars waste dispersal in public waterways and ditches.
1400Paris FranceGarbage piles so high outside of Paris gates that it interferes with city defense.
1690PhiladelphiaRittenhouse Mill, Philadelphia makes paper from recycled fibers (waste paper and rags).
1842EnglandA report links disease to filthy environmental conditions - "age of sanitation" begins.
1874Nottingham EnglandA new technology called "the Destructor" provided the first systematic incineration of refuse in Nottingham, England. Until this time, much of the burning was accidental, a result of methane production.
1885Governor's Island NYThe first garbage incinerator was built in USA (on Governor's Island in NY)
1889Washington DCWashington DC reported that we were running out of appropriate places for refuse (sound familiar?).
1896United StatesWaste reduction plants arrive in US. (for compressing organic wastes). Later closed because of noxious emissions.
1898New YorkNY has first rubbish sorting plant for recycling (are we reinventing the wheel?).
Turn of Century By the turn of the century the garbage problem was seen as one of the greatest problems for local authorities.
1900 "Piggeries" were developed to eat fresh or cooked garbage (In the mid-50's an outbreak of vesicluar exenthama resulted in the destruction of 1,000s of pigs that had eaten raw garbage. Law passed requiring that garbage had to be cooked before it could be fed to swine).
1911New York CityNYC citizens were producing 4.6 pounds of refuse a day (remember the Native Americans from 6500 BC mentioned above?).
1914United Statesthere were about 300 incinerators in the US for burning trash.
1920's Landfills were becoming a popular way of reclaiming swamp land while getting rid of trash.
1954Olympia WashingtonOlympia Washington pays for return of aluminum cans.
1965United StatesThe first federal solid waste management laws were enacted.
1968 By 1968 companies began buy back recycling of containers.
1970United StatesThe first Earth Day was celebrated, the Environmental Protection Agency EPA created and the Resource Recovery Act enacted.
1976United StatesIn 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was created emphasizing recycling and HW management. This was the result of two major events: the oil embargo and the discovery (or recognition) of Love Canal.
1979United StatesThe EPA issued criteria prohibiting open dumping.
Today The list goes on and on.

Related Resources


  • US Environmental Protection Agency, Decision-Maker's Guide to Solid Waste Management, Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OS-305), November, 1989.
  • US Environmental Protection Agency, Decision-Maker's Guidse to Solid Waste Management, Volume II, Solid Waste and Emergency Response (5305W). August, 1995.
  • League of Women Voters, The Garbage Primer, Lyons and Buford, Publishers. 1993.
  • Rathje William and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, Harper Collins Publishers. 1992.

Citing this page

If you need to cite this page, you can copy this text: