History of Waste Management
Ever since we began living in communities, the issue of waste and what to do with it has been a perennial problem for the human race. We produce millions of tonnes of it each year and areas such as towns and cities have had to adapt and develop more and more intelligent ways of dealing with it. In the past, poor management of waste has been responsible for the spread disease and a contributory factor for major outbreaks of cholera and the plague.
Nowadays, waste management is a big industry and has numerous categories such as hazardous, industrial and clinical waste not to mention including recent trends such as recycling which has grown out of the necessity to be more sustainable.
For the majority of our history waste management was not given great consideration, primarily because we lived in smaller communities. In pre-modern times, most of the waste we produced was also biodegradable. In other words, most things rotted and we didn’t have the plastics and other materials that we have today which are particularly difficult to dispose of.
As populations got bigger there became a need to put all that waste we produce somewhere safe. The first historical evidence of a municipal dump is in Athens around 500BC where there were laws saying that waste had to be dumped at least a mile outside the city centre.
As people began to gather in ever larger numbers in cities, the waste we produce on a daily basis began to become a significant problem. There is evidence of laws being passed in England to stop the throwing of rubbish and other waste into waterways, particularly in London, as far back as the 14th Century. In Paris, at the turn of the 15th Century, the rubbish piled outside the walls of the city became so problematic that something had to be done.
It was long thought that waste was causing unsanitary conditions, something that is obvious to us today. In cities such as London, people used to simply throw their bodily waste and other things out of the window. Even when, in 1751, English customs official Corbyn Morris suggested putting the cleaning of London under one public management scheme, nothing much was done. Cholera outbreaks in the city during the middle of the 19th Century finally led to changes. One of the keys to this was a report produced by Sir Edwin Chadwick called The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population which came out in 1842.
The introduction of the Metropolitan Board of Works marked a steady increase in the development of municipal waste services in the capital and as time went on other cities with fast growing populations began to develop similar provisions. Removing people’s waste to outside the city or town was one thing, but finding a way to dispose of the rubbish was another. In 1874, the first incinerator was built in Nottingham although there was a lot of opposition at the time because of the amount of ash it produced.
Other countries around the world also developed their own waste management services including in America and across Europe. Dump trucks pulled by horses were more regularly seen around the streets and curb side collection became a common practice. Some countries with enough space went for solutions such as landfill while others opted to incinerate waste
The Modern Era of Waste Management
While the practice of waste collection was gradually spreading across the globe, what to do with that waste and how to manage it more effectively was a growing problem for local councils and legislative authorities. Even pigs were used at one point to eat the food waste until they caught diseases and had to be destroyed.
Methods of general waste disposal for a long while consisted of incineration or sending rubbish to large areas of landfill which were not only a health risk but also difficult to manage. The other major issue with waste management was that we began to produce different types as technology developed. There were plastic containers, batteries, electronic wiring and other things we all take for granted in modern societies. Some of these were either toxic or non biodegradable which meant that they could hang around causing problems to the environment for hundreds if not thousands of years.
By the late 1990s, everyone was certain that something had to be done about landfill and there was a more active move towards recycling and the better management of waste. The Landfill tax was introduced which has dramatically reduced the amount of waste being sent to landfill in the UK over the last 20 years.
In recent times we have started using technology to create energy from waste as well as recycling large amounts of the rubbish we produce every day, including things such as paper and plastic bottles, glass and even wood and metal. Rather than throwing everything into one bin nowadays, we have different ones for different materials and municipal dumps have become sorting and processing areas for making the most of our waste. We buy recycled goods and paper and try to reuse rather than discard.
Today we are more interested in producing zero waste, or close to it, often going back to more traditional things like glass jars and containers or recycling food waste in compost heaps for our gardens. Waste management is always going to be a problem for the human race but at least now we are finding more ingenious ways of dealing with it.
Find out more about creating valuable energy from our waste.