The Terminology of Waste

Today the terms “trash” and “garbage” are used interchangeably, but historically they had different meanings. Trash once referred specifically to broken or chipped material, especially and originally wood chips and scrap. The word was not in common use until the twentieth century.

In the historical English language, ‘garbage’ consisted of food scraps and waste from the kitchen. The first known use of the word  ‘garbage’ in medieval England referred to giblets (edible offal from a fowl such as the heart, liver, and gizzard).  Households, even in towns, had a kitchen garbage pail to collect fruit and vegetable scraps, spoiled food, cheese whey, and even dishwater.  These leftovers were used to feed chickens and pigs.  Fats were collected separately and were either used for cooking (hog lard), to make candles and soap (beef tallow) or to sell to grease dealers.  In cities, households, grocers and butchers often threw garbage into open sewers in the streets.  Pigs and other scavenging animals consumed garbage in urban areas, and they were even protected by law.

Rubbish was the other main category of household waste.  At least from early 19th century, “rubbish” referred to dry, bulky wastes ranging from broken pottery, string, and rags to rubber, leather, and metal discards.

The largest portion of waste generated by 19th century households in America was a third category — ashes from wood and coal fires used for heating, cooking and making things. This is a problem that few households have today in an age of electric, gas, oil, and central heat. Similarly, the largest public nuisance in cities and towns was horse manure, a problem solved by the advent of the automobile.



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