Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Project Nowaste - The History of Garbage, Part 1

19th Century garbage collectorDo you think we have problems with trash? That it's a modern problem caused by too much waste and not enough care about the items being thrown out? Well, garbage has been a problem for cities for hundreds of years.

This installment of the history of garbage covers up to the turn of the 20th century. And, as much as I love studying 17th century social life in London (back when dolphins in the Thames were a common sight), following only the colonies will be sufficient. So, here are a few facts to help you get an idea of the more recent history of garbage.

During Colonial times in the U.S., paper was made from cotton and linen rags. "Rag drives" were held to collect scraps which were then boiled, mashed and pressed into paper. Two hundred years ago scrap metal, ashes, bones and fat (used to make soap and fertilizers) were sold. So, instead of paying for someone to haul these items away, people got paid for this type of trash. In fact, the only things thrown out were glass, broken pottery, and other trash that wouldn't decompose or be fed to the animals.

Fast forward to the mid-1800s where population increases in city centers compounded trash problems. Pigs were let loose in city streets to eat through the garbage that was left out and they, in turn, left behind their own waste products. This not only brought on a horrible smell (both the garbage and the pig waste) but also attracted vermin and rats - even the White House was not immune to this.

Streets were lined under several feet of manure, waste and human fecal matter rendering it unsafe to walk on sidewalks (and under second story windows from which people emptied their chamber pots). It wasn't until 1866 that New York City forbade the throwing of dead animals and garbage into the streets.

During this time there were over 3 million horses working in American cities, each producing over 20 pounds of manure and gallons of urine per day, most of which was left on the streets. And what did you do with your horses when they died? You couldn't transport them out of the city because, well, they were your transportation. So, you left them in the street. In 1880, New York City scavengers removed 15,000 horse carcasses from the streets.

In 1900, American cities began to estimate and record collected wastes. According to one estimate, each American produced annually: 80 - 100 pounds of food waste; 50 - 100 pounds of rubbish; 300 - 1,200 pounds of wood or coal ash - up to 1,400 pounds per person. Not too surprisingly, around the turn of the century, 180 garbage incinerators were built in cities across the U.S. and small and medium sized towns built piggeries, where swine were fed fresh or cooked garbage.

The next installment coming up covers the 20th century. During this time came wealth and with that a throwaway society where the focus of products is on planned obsolescence based on fashion rather than durability.

For those of you calculating the weight of your food waste, how do you compare to the 1900 averages?


Chile said...

Much less than my ancestors. I've been bad and have not weighed my trash for you. Counting only food that could have been eaten if I'd been paying attention to 'use by' criteria (if it don't stink, it's edible), I've wasted about 1/3 pound of wild rice pancake mix (smelled really really stale) and approximately 1 pound of assorted limp/soggy/wilty greens.

Should I count the moldy onion bits? I'm not sure if they molded in my house or at the CSA storage... I cut the moldy bits off, rinse the onion really well, peel off one more layer and use the rest. No ill effects yet.

DC said...

I have some work to do, so I'll have to keep this brief. Since the beginning of Project Nowaste, I am happy to report that we have not chucked a single horse carcass into the street. On the down side, I am getting damn tired of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwich crusts that my six year old refuses to consume, and I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to be able to keep them out of the compost bin.

Unknown said...

A meme from me to you

PS. I plan on comenting soon on the project nowaste - I have been having some very eye opening results!

Anonymous said...

Suggestion for DC, cut the crusts off the bread before you make the sandwich. Then you can dry the crusts for breadcrumbs, croutons, stuffing or bread pudding. I feed ours to the chickens quite often.
Crunchy-I just started reading Garbageland, is that where you got the info? It is a great book by the way.
Cindy in FL

Anonymous said...

I've been bad and not weighed my trash, but I promise you this -- I am eating some weird combos out of the fridge so I don't have to throw food out. I think of you, Crunch, when I sit down to my bizzare leftover meals -- so I hope you are happy! :)

This challenge has made me very conscious of not throwing food out. As a lapsed Catholic I've always been weird about tossing food anyway (big sin - starving children in China, grandparents survived the Depression) but this has reignited my resolve to not toss food.

It seems the busier my life gets the harder it is to not do so. I think I need to focus a bit on slowing down as well. (yet another challenge)

Anonymous said...

We had some people over for a party, and we made too much food, and they brought some food. Then for Lunar New Year, my students brought a lot of food they made for a little class party. Then I got those leftovers.

Basically, our fridge is full of stuff that we wouldn't normally eat. Strange combos: leftover broth from something I made, some old steamed rice, and chopped baby carrots from the party. Tonight, I'm mixing the hummus that I made with some tomato paste and carmelized onions and hoping that it turns into a good pasta sauce.

joaquin said...

Great story, I would have never thought of reading the story of trash. It gives a good idea of were we are now.
Great idea for my cat. Will try to implement it.
I am also trying to build a group of ecobloggers, i would love you to join us and bring others. I live in Berkeley, so have a good resource of us here, but I want people from other areas, and hear what you and they are doing to reduce waste.
Here is the link

Molly said...

No food waste here. Between the chickens, the goats, and the compost, plus the fact that we pretty much eat everything we bring into the house, there's no organic matter in the garbage. I'm not sure how many pounds of non-recycleables we produce, but we do have the smallest container Allied Waste will provide, 10 gallons I think it is, and it's rarely even half full.

Anonymous said...

We're composting 5-7 pounds a week, most of it inedible. But there's a large amount of bad milk going down the drain - we try to keep our kid in milk every time he asks (he's underweight) so I'm always finding an ounce or two of milk in a sippy cup in the diaper bag/cupboard/behind his bed.

So we're at the high end of the 1900 average - except that the canned and frozen veggies and purchased processed meat left waste somewhere else (you should see the pile of tomato skins in my compost heap in August when we can tomatos). So I think in reality we're higher.

Anonymous said...

Since I started worm bins last summer I've eliminated all food waste from my trash. I'm buying mostly bulk from my coop grocery store, reusing bags (when I remember to bring them) and using a heavy canvas bag for shopping. I've been using a glass bottle that used to have organic lemonade in it, repurposed for water (tap). Here in Milwaukee we recycle, so all my cans, bottles, and paper products are disposed of properly. I really working on not buying products in plastic containers that are not recyclable, and I reuse glass bottles for storage. I'm reusing plastic grocery bags (when I have them) for trash bags, and while I'm not weighing my trash, I figure I'm putting one grocery bag full of trash in the bin every 3 weeks.

My worms love paper products as well, so I'm shredding up my toilet paper rolls for them, as well as junkmail and/or newspaper. They really are a great way to deal with this trash problem. Since I've been using cloths for wiping mostly (paper for 'larger' cleaning) I've really reduced my toilet paper consumption, and I feel SO MUCH cleaner as well. Crunchy, you're a wonderful person for posting these challenges and making me feel less like a freak for doing these things. It's comforting to know that collectively our efforts to clean up our lovely green planet will live on for our children, and living green will become the standard!