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, March 15, 2008

Project Nowaste - The History of Garbage, Part 2

1920s garbage truck used by King County, WAIt's been a few weeks since I posted The History of Garbage, Part 1 and I figured it's about time I followed up with more of the story.

When I last left off, I was describing how in 1900, American cities began to estimate and record collected wastes. According to one estimate, each American produced annually up to 1,400 pounds per person. Around the same time, 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.

Here are some of the highlights of the first half of the 20th Century, including some new "disposable" inventions:

As early as 1904, large-scale aluminum recycling began in Chicago and Cleveland while Montgomery Ward started mailing out 3 million catalogues weighing four pounds each. By 1916, major cities estimated that of the 1,000 to 1,750 pounds of waste generated by each person per year, 80% was coal and wood ash. During the 1920s, "reclaiming" or filling wetlands near cities with garbage, ash and dirt became a popular disposal method.

In the 1930s, polystyrene and Plexiglas were invented, a new plastic called polyvinyl chloride was introduced, and disposable sanitary pads were developed by Kimberly Clark. Additionally, the DuPont Company patented nylon, the world's first synthetic fiber. Its strength, resistance to moisture and mildew, and good recovery after stretching lead to its use in stockings, electrical parts, power tools and car accessories.

Back in 1933, communities on the New Jersey shore sought and obtained a court order forcing New York City to stop dumping garbage in the Atlantic Ocean, but this applied only to municipal waste, not commercial or industrial wastes.

The 1940s brought WWII rationing as well as Styrofoam, ballpoint pens and the aerosol can. On the other hand, the amount of coal and wood ash in the garbage dropped down to 43% of New York City's refuse.

Capping off the first half of the 20th Century, the Fresh Kills landfill was opened in Staten Island, New York. It later became the world's largest city dump. Fresh Kills and the Great Wall of China are the only man-made objects visible from space.

This era can best be summed up by J. Gordon Lippincott, an industrial designer:

"Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history... It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even through it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift."


Anonymous said...

You could write the history of garbage and politics through the story of Fresh Kills. It shut down after a very long legal battle between Staten Island and the city in 2000. There were all kinds of great plans made on how to treat the land and redevelop it into livable space. Then 9/11 came and, like everything else in this city, things had to be rethought. They had to reopen the landfill to accept the endless amount of debris from the towers and to have a place to throughly sort through everything. Although the area was repulsive, it also was and is a great opportunity for study on how to convert such a mess into livable space. All the local universities, environmental groups, and even politicians are working towards correcting the past. They are now creating a park that will be 3x the size of Central Park.

Before they closed the dump I actually attended a wedding on Staten Island. I didn't really know much about the dump at the time...until the smell hit me. I'll never understand the choice of location. I'm guessing the reception hall was having a sale. A big one.

Anonymous said...

You can see Fresh Kills from space? Ugh, that's just wrong on so many levels. My stomach is churning now.

Tina Cardone said...

Small triumph:

Between recycling, reducing packaging on purchases and living alone I now produce very little garbage. It takes me over a week to fill a standard kitchen size garbage bag. The old banana peels didn't want to wait that long to go out though, I may have to use smaller bags.

JessTrev said...

CC and organicneedle, you may want to read Eliz Royte's Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. I'm about 1/2 way through and the author has just headed into Fresh Kills for a visit. Really fascinating read so far.

Greenpa said...

Pre-industrial China had garbage figured out. Throw it in the street!

Worked pretty well. The homeless people would freecycle anything they could, immediately.

The free-range pigs, dogs and chickens would recycle anything vaguely edible- and lots of stuff that isn't.

The rest got dried out, and ground into dust by traffic. Then it blew away. No landfills.

Sure, it was dusty. Hey, creates jobs for sweepers and dusters.

It was also highly unsanitary. Which mostly meant that around 1,000 years ago, every block in a Chinese city had a "boiled water" seller. They've been sterilizing their water that long, and having one person keep a hot fire, and hot water all the time was way more efficient than everybody boiling their own.

And you never ate the peel on an apple or pear.

Doesn't work anymore, though, although some places try.

Kathy said...

I thought I had heard that the Great Wall of China being seen from space was a myth so I just looked it up. Here's an article debunking that.
Very interesting history though! I really like that quote at the end. It is very upsetting to see all the waste that goes on in our society.

Anonymous said...

Greenpa, you're right; throwing garbage into the street (or down the ravine like they do in Guatemala) doesn't work anymore. The beautiful green valleys of Guatemala are covered with shredded plastic waste that will be there for who-knows-how-long.

And, that quote at the end was sad... I always imagined an "economy of abundance" to mean that there was plenty to go around if we shared, not that there was enough for some of us to go hog-wild while others lived on a dollar a day.

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying your history of garbage's that extra bit of inspiration needed to really think about what I'm throwing out. Can't wait to read more!