American Waste Practices

Early Waste Practices

As Lisa Minardi’s project on trash in early America demonstrates, waste practices in the 18th and most of the 19th century were largely the responsibility of the individual householder. We don’t have statistics for waste production because there were no municipal services to measure and manage the waste. As American cities grew at the end of the 19th century, waste became a serious problem. There, population density meant that it accumulated quickly. Streets were often impassable because of piles of horse manure and puddles of urine, mounds of rotten garbage, and accumulations of dry rubbish. Waste-related illnesses such as typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, and dysentery ravaged American cities.

In the 1890s, campaigns led by community activists including Jane Addams in Chicago and Colonel George Waring in New York worked to fix this problem. With the advent of municipal waste collection, street sweeping departments, and advances in public health and sanitary sciences such as the rise of bacteriological theory, cities were successful in managing municipal waste for much of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until the post-World War II boom of consumer purchases and the coincident rise in disposable goods and packaging that Americans once again were forced to come to terms with the problems of waste.

Garbage in the Street. Photograph, 4" x 5". Leslie Jones, 1939. Boston Public Library, Print Department. This photo shows how certain areas, especially lower-income and minority neighborhoods, struggled to receive municipal sanitary services even well into the twentieth century.

Garbage in the Street. Photograph, 4″ x 5″. Leslie Jones, 1939. Boston Public Library, Print Department. This photo shows how certain areas, especially lower-income and minority neighborhoods, struggled to receive municipal sanitary services even well into the twentieth century.

Waste Crisis of the 1970s to Today

The early 1970s saw another solid waste crisis in America.  Although it was a direct result of consumption practices that had reached new heights in the 1950s and 60s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Americans realized the cost of disposability.  Landfills filled up; Not-In My-Back-Yard (or NIMBY-ism) prevented development of new disposal sites; and Americans just kept producing waste at historically unprecedented levels. At this time, land contamination from landfills became the “third pollution”, joining water and air as a national environmental concern.

However, increased awareness of the problem did not stop the consumption and disposal of all the new, convenient goods on the market.  Between 1970 and 1990 municipal waste increased 61.6 percent, from 121.9 millions tons per year to 198 million tons.  The average mount of waste per capita ( for each person living in the U.S.) increased from 3.3 to 4.3 pounds per day. As these numbers indicate, Americans did have something to worry about.  Their trash was accumulating and former options such as feeding wet garbage to pigs, chemical reduction, water-dumping, and incineration had been discontinued for safety concerns. The federal government’s concern about this problem is evinced by the passage of the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act, the 1970 Resource Recovery Act, and the expanded 1976 Resource Recovery and Conservation Act from the EPA.  All of this legislation aimed broadly to establish federal power over solid waste management in the US.

United States, Office of Solid Waste, and Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, The Solid Waste Dilemma an Agenda for Action: Final Report of the Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, Office of Solid Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. ([Washington, D.C.]: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Solid Waste and Emergency Response, 1989), Cover. (Click through for full document.) This important document established the hierarchy of waste management, known today as "reduce, reuse, recycle," plus the forgotten final resort: dispose.

United States, Office of Solid Waste, and Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, The Solid Waste Dilemma an Agenda for Action: Final Report of the Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, Office of Solid Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. ([Washington, D.C.]: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Solid Waste and Emergency Response, 1989), Cover. (Click through for full document.) This important document established the hierarchy of waste management, known today as “reduce, reuse, recycle,” plus the forgotten final resort: dispose.

Disposables and the Waste Stream

Of all disposables, packaging may be the most prevalent in our landfills. Disposable food packaging began with early branding practices and canning factories at the dawn of the second-industrial revolution, circa 1890. Mass-production of glass bottles and tin cans made production of new containers more efficient for producers than re-using old ones or letting the consumer use their own. New concerns about germs made sealed “sanitary” packaging desirable. Disposable containers also provided space for advertisements and brand name placement.According to the EPA, disposable packaging waste jumped from 0.73 lbs per person per day in 1960 to 1.05 lbs per person per day in 1970. By 1989 packaging constituted over one-third of total municipal solid waste across the nation. It remains at that level today, despite dramatic increases in recycling by consumers.

However, there are other disposables items beyond packaging; diapers, tampons and tampon- applicators, plates, cups, utensils, and even tinfoil cookware, disposable tablecloths, syringes, hospital gowns, shaving razors, contact lenses, pens, printer cartridges, and batteries are all meant to be disposed of after use. Reading through this list, one notices that the vast majority are plastics and paper.  Paper and plastics have taken up larger and larger percentages of the waste stream at large, even as total waste increases. Metals from disposable tin cans and glass from bottles have also increased.

United States, Office of Solid Waste, and Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, The Solid Waste Dilemma an Agenda for Action: Final Report of the Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, Office of Solid Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. ([Washington, D.C.]: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Solid Waste and Emergency Response, 1989), pg 13. Because this chart was written in 1988, the 2000 numbers (black lines) are projections.

United States, Office of Solid Waste, and Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, The Solid Waste Dilemma an Agenda for Action: Final Report of the Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, Office of Solid Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. ([Washington, D.C.]: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Solid Waste and Emergency Response, 1989), pg 13. Because this chart was written in 1988, the 2000 numbers (black lines) are projections.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s