The History of Trash – A brief Look Back

Getting rid of our trash easily has become one of the many modern conveniences that we enjoy. Once a week, we roll our garbage bins out to the roadside; when we get home from work the trash cans have been emptied and it’s contents taken away never to be seen again. Just like magic!

Like so many modern services, it makes our lives simpler in the short term, but the long-term repercussions can be catastrophic. To make any real change to the current trash epidemic and the waste crisis it can be helpful to look back and ask, “How did we get ourselves into this mess?”

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution refers to a period when people began to move away from an agricultural and handicraft based economy to one that was becoming more and more dominated machine production and manufacturing. It was from 1760 to 1840 that the invention of machines and automation began to really take off.

As products became easier to manufacture, they became more accessible to society and more inexpensive to purchase. Before this, things like soap, sugar, and flour were purchased in bulk, and less frequently. With machine production, goods like these were packaged individually and in smaller quantities.

This new way of production and the packaging that was being used is where the problems began; especially in the bigger towns and cities.

Late in the 19th century, the revolution was charging full speed ahead with no signs of slowing down. America’s wealth was growing and the idea of a municipal trash collection was born. The first official garbage collection ran by the city began in 1895 in New York City. Other cities were quick to jump on board with the idea as litter began to clog the streets and alleyways, but it was seen as a nuisance and an eyesore as opposed to an environmental issue.

Now does any of this sound familiar to the issues we are facing today with excess packaging and single-use plastics? The quest for modern convenience started it all.

We now live in an era where our wastefulness can be a case of “out of sight, out of mind” if that’s the way you choose to look at it. Our rubbish collections run on time, like well-oiled machines, transporting tonnes and tonnes of waste into landfills every year. Modern conveniences have made our existence easier no doubt, but at what cost?

While the industrial revolution was an exciting time of new discoveries and overwhelming possibilities, it wouldn’t be until decades later that people would start to understand the link between the environment and pollution.

Native tribes and indigenous people have always known of the delicate balance that exists between man and nature. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that modern men and women began to hold industry responsible for their actions.

Early Environmentalism

A Chemist named Alice Hamilton campaigned against lead poisoning that occurred from the use of leaded gasoline; she publically accused General Motors of wilful murder. Despite Hamilton’s tenacity, it took Governments 50 years to ban leaded gasoline.

London’s infamous killer fog killed 4000 people in 1952. The British parliament passed the world’s first Clean Air Act.

American writer Cliff Humphrey founded Ecology Action in 1968. To raise awareness and cause a bit of a scene, Humphrey got 60 people together in Berkeley, California, to smash his car to pieces the street; shouting to anyone who’d listen, “these things pollute the earth.”
Like a fortune-telling prophet, Humphrey told Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter, “This thing has just begun.”

What our Ancestors Did Differently

It’s easy to say that people in living in the early 1700s didn’t have plastics and paper, Styrofoam and cardboard. While it’s a true statement, it’s not the answer.

What our ancestors had, generally speaking, was a completely different mindset. They didn’t seem to want for things the way modern people do. They were grateful for what they had. Items that we take for granted and consider a necessity were seen as luxuries in the 1700s. Things like soap, fabric, and heating were considered a bonus.

Without the modern conveniences that we enjoy today, reusing and repurposing materials was just a way of life for the working-class people of the 1700s. They worked hard, no doubt about that! And in turn, they were never wasteful.

Things we can learn from the Old Days:

  • Buy in Bulk – Our ancestors would use reusable fabric bags, glass jars, wooden crates and buckets to purchase items like flour, grains, and sugar.
  • Cooking from Scratch – Being able to create a meal for yourself or your family from fresh produce or basic ingredients is a life skill that seems to be dying a slow death. Baking bread, biscuits or roasting vegetables and meats eliminates packaging and can also positively impact your bank balance.
  • Sewing – Another life skill that can help the environment. Patching and mending jeans and trousers can be used as work clothes around the house. Learn to sew a button back onto a business shirt rather than throwing it out. I know we are talking about the “old days” here, but YouTube has become a go-to for tutorials, you can find the answers to just about any “how to” question.
  • Use Smaller Amounts – Great handfuls of shampoo or slugging a big slurp of olive oil in a pan is unnecessary and wasteful. Be mindful of the quantities you’re using. Consuming less is better for the environment and your wallet.
  • Use Every Last DROP – You have already paid for it, why not use every last ounce of whatever product it is. Scrap the bottom of the jar, cut open the tube, and add some water to make it go a little further. Whatever it is, use it to its full potential. Being careless or discarding items that still have use is wasteful, and you may as well throw cash in the trash.
  • Repair Your Items – In our modern society, things have become so disposable. Inexpensive things generally break, and we don’t think twice about replacing them. Ask yourself if you actually need that item, could you survive without it? Instead, try and invest in quality items from the get-go. If something isn’t working as it should, have it serviced or repaired. This does not just apply to larger, big-ticket items either. Have you ever had your shoes resoled? It’s a fraction of the cost of new shoes, and better for the environment.
  • Gardening – Growing your own food is a great hobby that is relatively inexpensive to begin. You can’t walk into the produce section of your local supermarket without seeing metres and metres of cling film and plastic. You might like to start with a simple herb garden or some pots on a small balcony. Growing from seed can be extremely cost-effective and rewarding.
  • Composting – While you’re in the mood to get your little veggie patch up and running, have a look into composting. Our ancestors knew that rotting food waste would break down into some of the best nutrient-rich organic matter that you can find. It’s like the circle of life! The earth allows you to grow food to nourish your body, and compost replaces the nutrients and improves the soil.

Is there a way that we can find a balance between modern convenience and caring for the environment? It’s really hard to say. With everything that environmentalists and scientists have learned over the past couple of centuries, at least we can educate ourselves on what needs to be done to get the environmental train back on track.
It starts with you.