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History In Waste Disposal
History In Waste Disposal
Florrie Jacobs
Florrie Jacobs
May 31, 2021
3 min

In the Ancient World

It’s not easy to picture our ancient ancestors having conversations about “proper” and “improper” wastes. What could relatively ordinary people, who lived at a time when the most advanced technology was a pottery wheel or a plow, possible know about how to handle garbage disposal? How did they go about it? There are many theories on how they disposed their wastes. Different interpretations of what we consider to be some of the first recorded history is based on inferences, a certain amount of guesswork, and information gathered from remnants dug up from archeological sites. However, there is enough consistency in these accounts to give us an idea of what people were throwing away back then, and what they were doing with. The first organized municipal solid waste management system believed to have been created was in Athens in 350 BC, when drop boxes were placed around the city for collection of oil and other liquids. In the Roman Empire, a bin or amphora would be placed outside of each home for collection of waste once or twice a week. Waste collectors walked their designated routes each day and collected any of the organic waste and dumped it on a specific patch of land outside of the city. Around the 6 th century AD, a Greek leader named Solon brought laws upon Athens that created standardized channels which allowed citizens to dispose their own trash without requiring the help of another person.Landfill was widely used in the U.S. after 1900, when waste began to be produced in quantities and density never before imagined. It is a method of disposal that has been embraced in the U.S., but not without controversy and debate. Landfills became subject to rules and laws passed by municipalities, states or federal agencies. In 1977, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began regulating landfills.Sewage disposal of human waste was a big problem in ancient Greece. The poor simply relieved themselves in the streets and to relieve themselves they used too narrow pipes located too low. We clearly see this problem on Delos where the pipes (now gone due to age), are remnants of toilets called: Alluoi .

In the Modern Era and Today

It was the Victorians, however, who really gave the rise to the modern recycling industry when they pressed for waste reduction in London. Two men, separately, woke up to the idea of using recycled items as raw materials. James W. Watts invented a new process called “refining” — compound separation at source — and patented it in 1882. A year later came the breakthrough machine to translate this idea into reality, which you may have seen in action in one of London’s “dust carts.”. However, the Public Health Act had not been designed with recycling in mind. The act was meant to improve public health by eliminating the hazards of uncollected waste in the street; the idea that taking household waste away might help the economy and protect public health was a significant footnote. Early waste collectors and re-users were considered at best to be in need of education or discipline, rather than pioneers on a promising path.A hundred years later, and the American system of trash handling had changed dramatically. Factories made new materials for landfill disposal, and waste became more toxic and dangerous than ever before. Although the EPA had been founded in 1970, it wasn’t until the passage of The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976 that the US formally embraced its role as a municipal trash collector.But perhaps the most profound effect of British recycling policy has been its indirect damage to the global recycling industry. The fees Britain imposed on other nations exporting their rubbish in the 1970s lead many developing countries to shift towards landfill, thereby stunting their own domestic recycling industries.

In the Premodern Era

Many things were used as the primary medium for writing in the premodern era.      The parts of a picture that made up a whole were used to communicate a message. Although paper was invented in China and was sought after during the middle ages, it didn’t make it into common use in Europe until the 1400’s. The Chinese created really thin rice paper which was commonly used for communication along with silk threads - imitated by Europeans. Pieces of wood, called tablets, carved or printed upon were also a popular choice and could be reused if treated well! Pieces of wood are often called palimpsests.Recycling practices stalled in the Western world for a different reason. Europeans started burning garbage and rubbish to dispose of it. The first centralized recycling program started in Britain in the 1870s, when civic leaders started ordering local collectors to pick up everything from garden waste to rags. But this “waste management” system, as we call it today, is a relative newcomer compared with other recycling efforts in history.The streets, which were once covered with horse feces, overflowed with all manner of trash. The situation was so dire that the Roman Emperor Claudius banned citizens from throwing garbage into the street—effectively declaring war on the stench of Rome. Across Europe and Asia, municipal governments failed to properly deal with waste disposal.A more advanced level of recycling was practiced in the premodern era, around 700 years ago. Evidence of this comes from early Japanese garbage collection practices in which street cleaners collected trash and kept it in organized dumps so that future poor people could rummage through it and find materials to reuse and recycle.


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Florrie Jacobs

Florrie Jacobs

Makeup Artist

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