It’s no secret that the best way to improve waste management practices is through education. At this point, most people have a clear idea of where their waste comes from and how they can reduce the overall production of it. The knowledge gleaned through eco-conscious teachings has influenced millions of people to change their attitudes toward trash and to assume a more responsible and serious outlook on the future of the planet. When it comes to human behavior, education often brings about change.
One of the most powerful ways to educate yourself on the subject of waste management is to look back at its progress through history. For thousands of years, human progress has been inextricably linked to the management of our debris, particularly because of its effect on public and environmental health. Waste management is one of the cornerstones of any civilized society. Just as we have been affected by our management decisions in the past, the success of our future depends heavily on the choices we make today. Trash is not only a modern problem—it has been a part of human life since the beginning of time.
Ancient History (10,000 B.C. to 400)
Thousands of years ago, when civilization was just glint on the horizon, human waste mostly came in the form of ash from fires, wood, bones, and vegetable leftovers. Unlike today, ancient life left no room for wasting viable resources, so edible matter was used to feed animals or was buried in the soil to enrich future crops. In fact, early records discovered from the Han Dynasty suggest that composting in ancient China was commonplace and well documented, as was the use of human excrement, animal waste, straw, and plant ash to create rich soil for planting.
Back in the bronze age, useful objects were much harder to come by and were often repaired rather than tossed. With that said, archeologists have found evidence from 1500 B.C. showing that Minoan people from the island of Crete created dump sites where waste was placed in large pits and covered with dirt. Landfills are not a modern invention. By the year 500 B.C., history tells us that other regions in Greece had institutionalized similar techniques by mandating that all waste be deposited at least 1 mile from the city, banning any dumping of waste in city streets. When we think of ancient times, we often imagine trash being casually dropped off in random locations, but ancient discoveries tell a different story.
By the first century, people in Jerusalem were not only dumping their trash in one designated location. They were taking additional management steps by periodically burning their waste. In addition, discoveries made in Central America prove that Mayan Indians also used giant dump sites for trash, all of which would be occasionally torched by a massive fire to minimize the bulk. It was around this time that the Romans really changed the face of waste management by creating the first sanitation force. Men would walk the streets in pairs, picking up trash and throwing it in a wagon. This type of hands-on, concentrated effort was a revolutionary shift for civilization and also extremely effective.
Middle Ages (400-1600)
As populations boomed and cities began to grow, so did the piles of waste. Since there were not many management strategies in place, the debris created a horrible stench and harbored rats and other pests. The rotting mess was typically left in the streets, as there was no organized removal system in place, and this often led to the contamination of the water supply and the rampant transmission of disease. Human waste was not only unpleasant, it was also downright dangerous during a time when health was not fully understood. The plague in Europe during the 14th to 16th centuries was a direct result of the vermin that thrived in such unsanitary urban conditions. It was this very spread of deadly disease that forced early waste management techniques to be established and developed in the interest of the people and their well-being.
Early America and The Industrial Revolution (1650-1900)
In the 18th century, Europe and the United States were experiencing rapid growth and expansion, all of which led to considerably more waste. Government officials and the public were concerned about how all this new debris would be handled, as it posed a lot of potential problems in urban areas. This is when the “Age of Sanitation” began, and many communities put their heads together to design a disposal system that would protect public health. While humans would soon learn that this type of approach was needed to protect the environment, as well, it was the looming threat of sickness that first spurred such interest.
This was also a time when the “scavenger” became a real position in society—a person who essentially performed the recycling function by picking through the trash and selling whatever might be reusable. They were resourceful and would often find salvageable material in the sewers and down by the river banks. While it was initially financially motivated, the act of “recycling” through need began to create a waste management trend.
Modern Waste Management (1900-Present)
The modern era in the developed world has continued to lead to more organized waste collection and landfill programs. Technological advancements have also added considerable force to this effort, providing the world of waste management with a solution to the problem. Granted, in the early 20th century there was still a lot of progress to be made, but by 1910 about 80 percent of American cities had some sort of organized solid waste collection effort. When the automobile was invented and trash did not have to be moved by horse-drawn carts, the process became even more complex.
Not only has the approach toward waste changed over the years, but the debris itself is quite different. Many people don’t build fires anymore, but rather they live in apartments with heating systems. The rise in consumerism and supermarkets has given birth to a nation of plastic that never used to exist. So, while it’s true that our management strategies have become more sophisticated over the years, it’s important to note that the problem itself has also evolved. The question is whether we will we be able to keep up.