The History of Garbage

Historically, the human population generated very little trash. The number of people in the world at the beginning of human civilization was quite small compared to today, and their impact on natural resources was negligible. What little garbage was produced—mainly human and animal wastes and ash from wood fires—was fully biodegradable and had virtually no environmental impact. Later, as civilizations developed and populations lived in denser communities and cities, humans began to produce more wastes. Up until the twentieth century, however, most types of human garbage were reused and recycled. As historian Susan Strasser explains:

Merchants continued to sell most food, hardware, and cleaning products in bulk. Their customers practiced habits of reuse that had prevailed in agricultural communities. . . . Women boiled food scraps into soup or fed them to domestic animals; chickens, especially, would eat almost anything and return the favor with eggs. Durable items were passed on to people of other classes or generations, or stored in attics or basements for later use. Objects of no use to adults became playthings for children. Broken or worn-out things could be brought back to their makers, fixed by somebody handy, or taken to people who specialized in repairs.1

Materials that could not be repaired or reused were typically sold or given to junk dealers. In Great Britain, for example, junk dealers known as "rag and bone men" would travel through residential neighborhoods by horse and cart in search of rags, paper,

A "rag and bone" man makes his rounds in the East End of London in the 1960s. In Britain, rag and bone men would travel by horse and cart through residential neighborhoods in search of materials that they could sell to support themselves.

A "rag and bone" man makes his rounds in the East End of London in the 1960s. In Britain, rag and bone men would travel by horse and cart through residential neighborhoods in search of materials that they could sell to support themselves.

pieces of metal or wood, fireplace ash, bottles, and anything else that they could sell to support themselves. Similar junk dealers worked the streets in most cities in America, and these small entrepreneurs, in turn, sold the junk to manufacturers who recycled it into new products. As Strasser writes: "[Rags] were in high demand for papermaking. . . . Grease and gelatine 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."2

It was not until the advent of the Industrial Revolution—the historical period beginning in the late 1700s when the economies of the United States and many nations in Europe shifted from manual labor and hand tools to machines and factory manufacturing— that human-produced garbage became a critical issue. The full effect of the Industrial Revolution, however, was not felt until around the turn of the twentieth century, when systems of mass production and mass distribution were developed. This economic change produced many more products for people to purchase, and it also created jobs that helped to increase wealth that could be used to purchase products. As people were able to buy more and more new things, they stopped seeing value in broken and used items and began seeing these old items as trash. New forms of colorful advertising and packaging encouraged this burgeoning consumer culture.

At the same time, as companies grew in size, manufacturers stopped buying recycled goods from junk dealers, instead turning to other sources for raw materials or developing other production strategies. Papermakers, for example, began making paper from wood pulp instead of rags. Junk dealers could no longer sell bone scraps because large meat-packing companies now produced vast amounts of bones and other animal wastes for fertilizers and other products. And mechanization destroyed the recycling and refilling of bottles by allowing glass bottles to be made more quickly and cheaply.

All of these post-industrial trends contributed to a societal rejection of thrift and recycling, which in turn led to a growing pile of garbage. The once-closed and sustainable system of reuse and recycling was replaced with a one-way, open-ended system in which manufacturers create products from materials and energy extracted from the earth and sell those items to consumers, who in turn use them once or maybe a few times and then discard them as trash. Mass production and advertising techniques were perfected throughout the 1900s, creating today's all-encompassing consumer and convenience-oriented culture and economy. Journalist and filmmaker Heather Rogers describes this process:

The streamlining of industrial production led to low-cost, ready-made goods. This culminated in the super-efficient post-World War II mass production line, which turned out everything from furniture and cars to blenders and sunglasses cheaply and at lightning speed. The corollary to the ensuing mass consumption was (and remains) mass wasting. Today, manufactured goods have become so inexpensive that it makes economic sense to throw things away rather than repair them; and this translates into massive piles of rubbish. ... In short, our economic system relies, at its very core, on ever-greater piles of trash.3

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