Monday, May 7, 2007

Apple #241: History of Trash Collection

Today when I got home from work, I put out the recycling bin. As I did so, I thought about the people who come around and pick up trash. I thought, this must be a relatively new thing, putting out your trash and having someone pick it up for you. I wondered when that started, and what did people do with their trash before that?

  • It's difficult to pin down an exact date of when cities first started collecting its citizens' trash. Because trash collection happens at a municipal level, it's tough to find an overall history. But I did manage to find some milestones.
  • The first known municipal dump was established in Athens, Greece, in 500 BC.
  • The Mayans also took their trash to dumps. Sometimes the heat from the sun combined with items in the pile and set the dump on fire or even caused it to explode.
  • For centuries in Europe, people dumped their trash -- and other waste -- into the gutter. In most cases, it stayed there until it decayed, or until someone picked it up, usually to re-use it in some way.
  • Some people burned their own trash as an additional heat source for their homes. Other people lived on the scraps that their wealthier neighbors discarded.
  • In the 1800's, with the rise of horse-drawn vehicles, trash collection started getting organized. Street sweepers used to go up and down the streets, armed with shovels and brooms and horse-drawn carts, clearing away the waste and scooping it into the cart.
  • Despite whatever organized collection that occurred, there was still trash in the streets, and many people and animals subsisted on it. In 1830, some 10,000 hogs lived in Manhattan, roaming the streets and eating garbage -- and also providing a food source for the city's poor.

This horse-drawn "tip-cart" from 1900 was used to collect refuse from gutters and sewers. I wouldn't want this tip-cart to tip over on me!
(Image from Jon Schladweiler's site of sewer history artifacts)

  • In small towns in 1900, "piggeries" were established -- places where pigs lived solely to consume garbage people had created. These still functioned in many places as long as the late 1960s. In the 1950s, pigs in many of the piggeries developed terrible diseases from consuming raw garbage and many had to be euthanized. Subsequently, laws were passed requiring garbage to be cooked before it was fed to pigs.
  • At the same time, many cities relied on garbage dumps. With the exception of what the horses and carts collected, most trash was brought to the dump by individuals. Once at the dump, the trash was often burned.
  • The industrialization of cities, which meant increases in urban population, spurred many municipalities to start building what is known today as infrastructure -- sewers, water lines, roads, power lines, etc. Cites wanted to make sure its citizens had clean water to drink and wash with, and to keep its streets clean and healthy. To accomplish those goals, cities had to find better procedures and equipment to collect refuse.
  • The first automotive vehicles used specifically for collecting trash appeared on the streets in the 1920s. These were open-topped wagons, which were generally undesirable, since refuse tended to spill out of them, or at the very least, they emitted unspeakable odors as they passed.

This garbage truck used by King County, Washington in the 1920s was pretty advanced for its day.
(Photo from King County Archives & Records Management)

  • In 1937, George Dempster invented the Dempster-Dumpster. He operated steam shovels for a living, and his Dempster-Dumpster was originally intended to scoop up dirt and other construction materials. He developed the Dumpster in 1935, three years after he was hard-hit by the Depression and his home was auctioned off. Within a few years, his wheeled containers and grappling lift systems were being used across the country.

An early Dempster-Dumpster being demonstrated by George Dempster, who by this time had been elected mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee.
(Photo from the Knoxville News-Sentinel, sourced from Fountain City History)

  • Only a year later, the first truck with an on-board compactor was invented. The compactor used an hydraulic press and allowed the truck to double its capacity.
  • Although trash collection trucks benefited from many technical improvements in the 1930s, trash collection itself didn't really take off until after World War II. In other words, the volume of trash went up and so did the number of garbage trucks on the streets. Contributing factors to the increase in trash and its collection were the widespread use of plastics, disposable goods, and paper products.

Anatomy of a garbage truck with compactor. This is a 1949 model, but most garbage trucks today operate on similar principles.
(Photo of an early Garwood Load-Packer posted at

  • In 1954, Olympia, Washington established a program to pay people to return their aluminum cans -- arguably the first can & bottle pay return program in the country.
  • Continuous compactors, large municipal garbage dumps, and increased capacity and safety in compactor trucks all came on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • It wasn't until 1975 that all 50 states had some form of regulations governing solid waste collection.

Front loaders are the hottest thing in trash collection. They're used to hoist up commercial-sized Dumpsters.
(The Half/Pack Sierra, available from Heil)

The good news about trash is that our per capita generation of it has leveled off.

MSW = Municipal Solid Waste (trash)
(Source: EPA Municipal Solid Waste Basic Facts)

So, too, however, has our recycling.

(Source: EPA Municipal Solid Waste Basic Facts)

Susan Strasser's book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash is full of many more tidbits about the history of trash in the United States.

US EPA, Municipal Solid Waste Basic Facts and Milestones in Garbage
Wikipedia, Waste Collection Vehicle
Tigerdude's History of refuse collection (or the garbage truck)
Kim Knowlton, Urban History, Urban Health, American Journal of Public Health, December 2001
Fountain City History, Fountain Citians Who Made a Difference, George R. Dempster
Environmental, The History of Waste

1 comment:

If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!