Who Invented Garbage?

We know who invented the telephone and who invented the electric bulb. We even know who claims to have invented the Internet. But do we know who invented garbage?

If we round up the usual suspects, most of them would be in the packaging industry. A decade ago, we blamed the creators of styrofoam for inventing garbage. But they got off the hook when America's landfills weren't drowning in a sea of styrofoam.

To find out who invented garbage, we need to look further back in history. In fact, we need to look back to the beginning of civilization because whoever invented the first product, whether it was a pot or an arrowhead, invented garbage. Trash, after all, is simply those things that we can't use anymore so we get rid of them. People have been throwing things away since the beginning of time.

Actually, the earliest garbage was discarded bones, the leftovers of an ancient meal. Then the broken remains of primitive tools and pots became part of the trash heap. No wonder archaeologists celebrate when they discover an ancient refuse pit. Our ancestor's garbage provides many clues into how they lived.

Our garbage became more complex as our civilization progressed, and as we began developing new products from new materials. Colonial America was as close to a zero waste society as we have seen in this country. In the 1700s, manufactured goods were scarce. The little garbage we produced consisted of food waste and broken goods, or threadbare clothing and bedsheets that could no longer be repaired or reused. Food waste usually was fed to the family animals or thrown on the streets for wandering pigs or other animals to eat. Broken goods were buried in a backyard refuse pit or literally thrown out.

Technological advances in the manufacturing industry created our ability to make things more quickly and easily. As America industrialized and grew in population, our garbage changed to reflect the materials we made and the size of our population. Glass bottles and steel and paper products became common. We weren't a zero waste society anymore.

Individually we don't create much more garbage now than we did a century ago. Today, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, each of us creates 1,628 pounds of trash in a year. Garbage historians estimate that a century ago, each city resident created somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of trash in a year.

What has changed dramatically in the last 100 years is what's in our garbage. A century ago, ash, created by burning wood and coal for heat and for energy, was the biggest component of the waste stream. Today, ash has virtually disappeared from the waste stream, except at incinerators and wood-burning stoves. Paper now dominates the waste stream and in the next century, plastic products probably will be No. 1.

So, who invented garbage? Nobody did. Garbage just is.