Waste Watchmen

A notable history of protecting health and the environment.

May 1, 2009

4 Min Read
Waste Watchmen

Thomas Metzger

The National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), on behalf of the thousands of men and women who work in the solid waste industry, continues its educational campaign to help the public, the media and government officials better understand the vital role we play in their lives. Hopefully, since the “ENVIRONMENTALISTS. EVERY DAY. — America's Solid Waste Industry” initiative launched, you have visited our Web site or seen our posters or other materials. This program highlights the many ways that our industry protects the environment and public health, every day. In fact, the course of human development can be linked to advances (or failures) in waste management.

Proper waste management has been vital since humans began living in permanent settlements. Before there were regular waste management services, it was common for people to throw their garbage and human waste out of their doors or windows and let it decompose in the street. The resulting filth caused stench, harbored rats and other pests, led to contaminated water supplies, and perpetuated human disease.

Around 3000 B.C., to prevent such problems, people in Crete created the first urban garbage dump. They dug large holes where garbage was dumped. Around 500 B.C., the Athenians institutionalized similar techniques by banning the dumping of refuse in the city streets and mandating that waste be deposited no less than one mile outside the city of Athens. Unfortunately, these enlightened policies didn't survive the fall of Rome, and during the Middle Ages in Europe, people resorted to throwing their wastes out the door or window. The resulting filth was responsible for the bubonic plague, cholera and typhoid fever that killed millions of people in Europe during this time.

Keeping streets clean became a priority for modern cities. Benjamin Franklin led a movement to petition the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop commercial waste dumping inside Philadelphia. He also is credited with organizing the first public street cleaning in the city.

In 1842, a British government report linked disease to filthy environmental conditions. Historians suggest that this period in history ushered in the modern “age of sanitation.” Within a couple decades, England was systemically incinerating much of its waste. In the United States, the first garbage incinerator was built on Governor's Island in New York in 1885. During this time, in Europe, the United States and other parts of the developed world, more organized waste collection and landfilling programs were established in urban areas.

You don't need history books to understand the importance of having your garbage managed. Naples, Italy, has experienced a garbage crisis on and off for almost 14 years, with 10-foot piles of trash festering in the streets. While waste management efforts still rely on incineration and landfilling, technologies continue to evolve. The passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1970 led to the closure of many early incinerators that could not adequately limit air pollution. Modern waste-to-energy plants include pollution controls that remove particulates and reduce gas emissions to minute levels while producing enough electricity to power nearly 1.7 million homes. Similarly, modern landfills differ markedly from early dumps. They are complex enterprises, built with safety and environmental protection in mind, carefully engineered and monitored, managed to minimize odors and pests, and increasingly tapped as sources of energy.

Recycling has matured quickly compared to other waste technologies. Today, more than 34 percent of U.S. municipal solid waste is recycled or composted, conserving vital resources and energy, and protecting air and water quality.

The solid waste industry is leading the response to concerns surrounding climate change. By capturing greenhouse gas (GHG) from landfills, we are using it as a source of renewable and sustainable energy, and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil. As of December 2008, 469 landfill-gas-to-energy projects in 42 states reduced GHG emissions and produced enough energy to power 1.6 million homes. Similarly, new garbage trucks use alternative fuels and are more efficient, reducing fuel consumption and GHG emissions.

Solid waste professionals were environmentalists before such a concept even existed. Visit www.environmentalistseveryday.org/history to learn more about the history of solid waste management.

Thomas Metzger is director of communications and public affairs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. Reach him at (202) 364-3751.

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