December 1, 1999

13 Min Read
Waste and Wealth

Cheryl L. Dunson

Like it or not, from scavengers to skilled businessmen, the history of solid waste in America is tied to cash, indelibly reflecting the fluctuating status of our nation's wealth and prosperity.

Sure, modern recycling as we know it preserves landfill space and has resulted in diverting a fair amount of garbage from land entombment. But, tracing the roots of our thrifty forefathers tells us our reuse tendencies are grounded in our country's origin and growth. Cleanliness, efficiency and industrious marketing efforts also have characterized, in one way or another, America's evolving sanitation systems.

But, in two centuries of disposable activities, our throwaway habits and reusable mindsets ultimately have mirrored the economic times in which we've lived.

The Enduring 1800s. History professor Susan Strasser, author of the book "Waste and Want," says the most fascinating fact she gleaned from her months of researching America's social history of trash was 19th century Americans' frugality in determining something as unwantable. "The most amazing thing to me was the extent to which people avoided wasting [things] before this century," Strasser says.

Regardless of whether this was due to the overall economic leanness of the times, immigrant practices of first-generation Americans, or the prosperity of local and regional recycling markets, not much went to waste. Although packaged goods grew in popularity, Strasser notes most merchants continued to sell their products by bulk, and customers incorporated a number of reuse techniques into their daily lives. Boiling food scraps resulted in soup stocks; chickens ate the rest and produced eggs. Items of little interest to adults were handed down to children as toys. Broken things were recycled or sold as scrap. Items of little value were burned for fuel.

"All over the country, even middle-class people traded rags to peddlers in exchange for tea kettles or buttons," Strasser writes. "The regional, national and even international trade in rags was brisk because they were in high demand for papermaking ... Grease and gelatin could be extracted from bones. Otherwise, bones were made into knife handles, ground for fertilizer or burned into charcoal for use in sugar refining. Bottles were generally refilled."

In the 1800s, it seemed most everything had a second life. Capitalizing on the trade of used goods, a fairly sophisticated reuse and recycling system evolved to feed raw materials to the sprouting roots of industrialism.

"Scavenging was essential to that system," Strasser writes, "a chore and a common pastime for poor children, who foraged for shreds of canvas or bits of metal on the docks, for coal on the railroad tracks, and for bottles and food on the street." What wasn't salvaged for revenue returned home with the children as food and fuel for the entire family.

Knee-Deep in Muck Despite these foraging and recycling efforts, America's city streets were far from clean in the 19th century. Littering was the disposal method of choice before people began settling in one place 10,000 years ago. However, a History Channel documentary, "Modern Marvels: Garbage," indicates that solid waste only really became a nuisance with the creation of cities.

In the television special, Dr. Martin Melosi, history professor at the University of Houston, says common disposal practices in the 1800s consisted of dumping evening meal leftovers and chamber pot contents out the window into the streets. Labeled "biological vacuum cleaners," scavenger pigs, goats and stray dogs were free to roam streets prior to the Civil War.

Ordinances were enacted to contain animals, but they were widely ignored because the animals provided cities with their only form of sanitation service. In fact, in 1834, the city of Charleston, W. Va., enacted a law protecting vultures from being hunted because the birds ate the city's garbage.

By the 1850s, the link between garbage and disease was made. American doctors and health workers initiated clean up campaigns in major urban centers, enlisting volunteers to clean filth off the streets. The efforts, by today's health standards, were largely misguided since yet-to-be-discovered bacteria - not filth - caused disease.

Nevertheless, the streets of New York City were several feet deep in horse manure and garbage by 1882. The city reeked, and any garbage that was collected was dumped into rivers, lakes and oceans.

Col. George Waring Jr., a former Civil War officer, was appointed New York City's first sanitation director in 1896. He created America's first revenue-producing, residential solid waste collection and recycling program.

Launching a major public relations campaign and outfitting his sanitation workers in white uniforms to parallel the cleanliness of the medical profession, Waring used his "White Wing" workers to wage a war against waste. For a dollar a day, Waring's sanitation crews provided and serviced residents with three barrels: one for ash, one for garbage and the other for rubbish.

Workers pressed oil and grease from the garbage to be sold to industry as lubricants. Spent garbage then was dried in cakes and sold as fertilizer to farmers across the country. Ash was landfilled. Remaining garbage was dumped in the Atlantic Ocean.

This idea spread. By 1902, municipal solid waste collection was prevalent among 79 percent of all U.S. cities, according to a survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. Although municipal waste collection program privatization hit its stride in the latter half of the 20th century, a number of cities, neighborhoods and individuals contracted collection services to immigrants.

Through the 20th Century "Trash and trashmaking became integral to the economy in a wholly new way: the growth of markets for new products came to depend in part on the continuous disposal of old things," Strasser says. In her book, she writes, "Old-fashioned reuse and recycling didn't disappear overnight," but the turn of the 20th century marked the passing of our forefather's prudent efforts.

The existence of municipal trash collection programs encouraged middle-class people to throw away, Strasser says, and America's industrial revolution meant more items were available to be purchased, used and discarded.

According to the author, "The physical volume produced by American industry nearly tripled, and the horsepower of industrial machinery quadrupled between 1899 and 1927. American industry spewed out a wealth of standardized, uniform goods that cost money to replace the makeshift, the homemade and the handmade."

America's industrialization not only promoted product consumption, but it also caused hardships on sanitation systems by creating more waste. Borrowing the idea of incineration from their British peers, U.S. officials decided to tackle the growing volume of garbage by burning it. Between 1880 and 1900, more than 180 incinerators were constructed, resulting in heat for homes while spewing noxious smoke across city landscapes. By 1909, more than 100 facilities were closed due to public outcry and pressure. Not until the soaring energy prices of 1970 was waste-to-energy technology revisited with new interest.

By 1919, New York no longer could market its recycled materials, nor keep pace with its citizens' disposable tendencies. To the outrage of New Jersey residents living in coastal communities, the city resumed dumping a large portion of its waste into the ocean, which prompted a series of class action lawsuits from the Garden State, which obviously was trying to retain some semblence of its moniker. By 1934, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed dumping of all wastes into the ocean.

Ironically, people's reactions to the economic pressures and pains associated with the Great Depression of the 1930s were to recycle less and buy more in order to keep people working and earning money. Strasser points to House & Garden Editor Richardson Wright's appeal to his readers to keep purchasing products despite economic hardships.

"To maintain prosperity we must keep the machines working, for when machines are functioning man can labor and earn wages," Wright wrote in 1930. "The good citizen does not repair the old; he buys anew. The shoes that crack are to be thrown away. Don't patch them. When the car gets crotchety, haul it to the town's dump. Give to the Ashman's oblivion the leaky pot, the broken umbrella, the clock that doesn't tick. To maintain prosperity, we must keep the machines going."

World War II and Landfills With no apparent desire to return to the thrifty ways of our forefathers, local officials inevitably recognized the need to establish a more permanent and environmentally sound system with which to manage solid waste. World War II and the U.S. Army proved to be the catalysts for the birth of the sanitary landfill.

With large numbers of troops overseas, army officials constructed large dump sites to handle the growing amounts of solid waste being generated daily at base camps. Collecting waste and delivering it to the dumps, army sanitation workers covered it daily with dirt.

The war effort also transcended foreign frontiers, leading to organized mass recycling campaigns back home. Strasser writes, "A month after the Japanese attack of Peal Harbor, the high school students of Prosser, Wash., collected 10 tons of paper in a drive sponsored by the Rotary Club." Proceeds went to the local defense council. The popular "Get Some Cash for Your Trash" campaign produced vast volumes of recycled materials. Everything from scrap metal and tin foil to rubber and newspaper was collected nationwide.

The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,400 Americans and turned United States' public opinion firmly in favor of war. Eventually, the U.S. government actually had to ask people to stop saving paper because of a lack of storage capacity.

Yet, for all the collection and scavenging efforts, the war movement didn't motivate Americans to return to a former life. "Scrap drives offered Americans a way to contribute to the war effort without sacrificing too much," Strasser writes. "By the end of the war, Americans were fully ready to favor consumerism over reuse. Rationing, shortages, scrap drives and homefront propaganda had grown stale."

William Rathje, archeologist from the University of Arizona, Tuscon, Ariz., concurs, adding, "Very little was ever done with that stuff. It was more for public morale; to give the public a sense of participation in the war."

Toxic Takes on New Meaning After World War II, chemical companies developed new and more toxic products. Most waste generated at chemical plants was dumped into nearby rivers and lakes with few government regulations and restrictions. Toxic waste gradually seeped into the earth's soil.

In 1962, Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring," caused a great public outcry and awareness about pollution in America. Carson predicted the extinction of all song birds due to pesticides and chemical pollution. And, while scientists disputed Carson's claims, it left a lasting impression on the public.

According to William Ruckelshaus, former chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., it was the onset of color television showing pollution in multicolor, along with astronauts' pictures of earth taken from space, that put public pressure on the federal government to intervene and finally regulate environmental activities.

In 1965, Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), the nation's first federal solid waste law authorizing research and providing for state grants. Five years later, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) replaced SWDA, requiring the federal government to issue waste disposal guidelines.

Also in the 1960s, two industry organizations were created, giving official voices to solid waste management professionals in both the public and private sectors. The Government Refuse Collection and Disposal Association was created in 1961, eventually becoming the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md. Following suit in 1968, the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) formed and is now a part of the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C.

Waste Becomes Big Business Private companies also began to play bigger roles in communities' waste collection and disposal programs in the latter half of the 20th century. In a 20-year period from 1955 to 1975, private collection efforts grew from 45 percent to almost 67 percent, while public providers decreased from 55 percent to 33 percent during the same period.

In the past few decades, large private companies such as Waste Management Inc. (WMI) and Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) have grown by acquisition. Ironically, unlike the 1970s, smaller companies have stunned the industry with their acquisitions of much larger companies. In 1998, U.S.A. Waste, the country's third-largest solid waste company, acquired industry leader WMI, followed a year later by Allied Waste Services, which took over BFI, the second-largest waste firm at the time.

Major historical and legislative events also occurred.

In 1978, Love Canal became a household phrase as 200 families were relocated after it was determined Hooker Chemical and Plaster Corp. disposed of 21,000 tons of chemical waste during a 25-year period and later sold the property to the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which constructed a playground on the site. Love Canal is remembered as the primary cause for creating the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Reliability Act, also known as Superfund, in 1980.

In 1987, the garbage barge Mobro searched the Atlantic east coast looking for a welcome mat for its 6,000 tons of rotting waste. Rejected by five states and two foreign countries, Strasser says the barge was a precursor of future events in America. As the media covered the barge's hapless voyage, the lasting impression was etched in Americans' minds that the country was running out of landfill space.

"In response, the big waste companies raised tipping fees and built immense landfills," Strasser writes. Shortsightedly, "Observers of trash eventually declared the problem solved." In response to the national landfill shortage, EPA Assistant Administrator Winston Porter announced a 25 percent recycling goal in 1988 to be met within four years. It took Americans twice as long to hit the mark, which shouldn't be a surprise since solid waste production per person increased from 3.2 pounds per day to 4.4 pounds, according to Strasser.

"Put another way, after recycling, the trash that had to be dumped or burned increased from three pounds to 3.4 pounds per day," she writes, adding even the most dedicated recyclers continue today to buy more food in disposable containers and can't find uses for all of the plastic containers coming their way.

In 1992, mirroring the sister regulations approved for hazardous waste landfills, Subtitle D of RCRA was authorized, establishing minimum criteria for solid waste disposal facilities. In addition to expensive liner and leachate collection systems, landfills now must follow more stringent siting criteria, design standards and closure requirements. While forcing the closure of thousands of landfills, the majority being publicly owned facilities, the new regulations spawned immediate business opportunities for liner manufacturers, geo-technical companies and environmental monitoring specialists.

This business competition continues today. Faced with waste reduction mandates not placed on its private counterparts, local governments are experiencing more difficulty competing with vertically integrated waste conglomerates. Subtitle D requirements add to the financial pressures. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a stunning blow to public providers of solid waste services when it concluded that mandating waste flow to specific disposal facilities is unconstitutional.

The precedent-setting C&A Carbone ruling continues to reverberate throughout the industry today as Virginians brace themselves for the closure of New York City's Fresh Kills Landfill and the inevitability of hundreds of thousands of tons of imported waste a year. Owners of the large Virginian landfills stand to make millions of dollars.

Carbone's irony is Virginia's proverbial thorn in its side: You can't keep waste from leaving, but you can't stop it from coming either.

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