In early pre-industrial times waste was mainly composed of ash from fires, wood, bones, bodies and vegetable waste. It was disposed of in the ground where it would act as compost and help to improve the soil. Ancient rubbish dumps excavated in archaeological digs reveal only tiny amounts of ash, broken tools and pottery. Everything that could be was repaired and reused, populations were smaller, and people lived in less concentrated groups. However, the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer to farmer meant that waste could no longer be left behind, and it soon became a growing problem.
Until the Industrial Revolution when materials became more available than labour, reuse and recycling was commonplace. Nearly 4000 years ago there was a recovery and reuse system of bronze scrap in operation in Europe and there is evidence that composting was carried out in China. Reuse and recycling has always existed in the form of salvage, an ages-old tradition stretching forward to the Rag-and-Bone men. Traditionally, recovered materials have included leather, feathers and down, and textiles. Recycling included feeding vegetable wastes to livestock and using green waste as fertiliser. Pigs were often used as an efficient method of disposing of municipal waste. Timber was often salvaged and reused in construction and ship-building. Materials such as gold have always been melted down and re-cast numerous times. Later recovery activities included scrap metal, paper and non-ferrous metals.
However, as city populations increased, space for disposal decreased, and societies had to begin developing waste disposal systems.
3000 BC - In the Cretan capital, Knossos, the first recorded landfill sites were created where waste was placed in large pits and covered with earth at various levels.
2000 BC - Composting is known to have been a part of life in China During the European Bronze age bronze scrap recovery systems were in place.
Over 2,500 years ago, government officials in the Greek city-state of Athens, open a municipal landfill site and decree that waste is to be transported at least one mile beyond the city gates.
1297AD - In response to the increasing amount of waste deposited in towns in Britain, a law is passed to make householders keep the front of their house clear from refuse. It is largely ignored. However, most waste is burned on household open fires.
1354 - "Rakers" are employed in each London ward to rake rubbish together, load it into carts, and remove it once a week.
1407 - It is ruled that household rubbish is to remain indoors until it can be removed by the rakers after which it is either sold as compost or dumped in the Essex marshes. This preliminary attempt to manage and control waste is not particularly successful, but paves the way for further regulation.
1408 - Henry IV's removal order instructs that refuse be removed or else forfeits be paid.
Medieval German cities required the wagons which bring produce into the city to carry out waste into the countryside.
1500s - Spanish copper mines use scrap iron for cementation of copper, a recycling practice that survives to this day.
1515 - Strafford-upon-Avon court record show that Shakespeare's father was fined for 'depositing filth in a public street'.
1588 - Elizabeth I grants special privileges for the collection of rags for papermaking.
1700s and 1800s - The Industrial Revolution begins in the 18th century when the availability of raw materials and increased trade and population stimulate new inventions and the development of machinery
Coal powered machinery can now produce increasingly large quantities of materials quickly and cheaply. Increased production has led to increased waste, which lays in place the means of mass producing materials which we see in factories today.
Early 1800s - Many people lived by selling what they could find in other peoples rubbish, even dogs' dung which was valuable as it was used by tanners for purifying leather.
'Toshers' worked in the sewers, a dangerous and smelly way to make a living, but lucrative as they found coins, bits of metal, ropes and sometimes jewellery.
'Mud-larks' scavenged on the river banks, and made a very poor living.
'Dustmen' collected the ash from coal fires. Over three and a half million tons of coal was burned in London in a year!
The dust was taken to dust-yards. Here men, women and children worked on the heaps of rubbish, sieving the brieze or course section of the dust. This is used as a soil conditioner and for brick making.
1848 - In Britain the Public Health Act 1848 begins the process of waste regulation.
1874 - Energy from waste begins its development in Britain as the first "destructor" is designed and constructed in Nottingham. Destructors were prototype incineration plants which burnt mixed fuel producing steam to generate electricity. During the next 30 years, 250 destructors are built in Britain. They are opposed on the grounds of emissions of ashes, dust and charred paper which fall onto the surrounding neighbourhood. By 1945 incineration is at an all time low, to re-emerge in the 1960s and again today, where opposition is on the grounds of dioxin emissions.
1875 - The Public Health Act 1875 charges local authorities with the duty to arrange the removal and disposal of waste, starting an evolution of local authority power. This replaces the previously widespread practice of scavenging. The Act also rules that householders keep their waste in a "movable receptacle", the beginning of the dustbin, which the local authorities have to empty every week. A charge could be made for every day the bin was not emptied.
1890 - The British Paper Company is established specifically to make paper and board from recycled materials. Waste paper is obtained from organisations such as the Salvation Army and rag-and-bone men.
By the late 1800s household waste is collected daily in moveable ash bins. The waste is sorted by hand, usually by women or girls, into salvageable materials, and coarser materials are sieved from fine ash (breeze). A large proportion of the waste is salvaged, revealing the extent of reuse and recycling systems, for instance materials such as glass and metal are returned to merchants, and the breeze and hard core from incinerated residue are used in building materials. The value of goods reclaimed from dust heaps shows that the level of recycling and reclamation has always depended on economic incentive.
1898 - The Association of Cleansing Superintendents is established, which today has evolved into the Institute of Wastes Management.
1907 - An amendment to the Public Health Act 1875 extends refuse collection to include trade refuse and authorises local authorities to levy charges for waste collection.
1907 - A delegate at the Association of Cleansing Superintendents conference is quoted in the Surveyor as suggesting that the biggest change in municipal work would be the change from destruction to salvage "in the near future". Nine decades on this has still not happened.
1921 - The British Waste Paper Association is established (initially as the Association of London Waste Paper Merchants) to help develop the trade in waste paper for recycling.
1930 - The Ministry of Health urges that "the system of dumping crude refuse without taking adequate precautions should not be allowed to continue". Similar complaints about unsanitary landfill were to continue for several decades.
1930s - The manufacture of plastics from chemicals produced from petroleum begins (plastic products had been made from plants since 1862). The production and manufacture of plastics grows slowly over the next 20 years. In the economic boom of the 1950s production begins increasing sharply due to increases in different types and applications for plastics. While the development of plastics and other forms of packaging has reduced the amount of food wastage, the environmental consequences of increasing amounts of non-biodegradable plastic packaging and toxic inks is largely overlooked.
In the 1930s, most people live in houses where heating and hot water are provided by burning newspaper and coal in fires, hence the small quantities of paper and large quantities of dust in the bins. The small percentages of textiles, glass, and metals are also the result of recovery and reuse schemes.
1936 - The Public Health Act 1936 rules that the accumulation of waste which is prejudicial to health, or a nuisance, is a Statutory Nuisance. Authorities are given the power to prosecute over uncontrolled dumping, cesspools and scavenging - a practice which often resulted in the scattering of refuse. The Act also prohibits building upon contaminated land and lays down regulation for the management of landfill sites, but these were mostly overlooked in the years that followed.
During the world wars waste regulation becomes less of a priority. Despite a rise in reclamation and recycling during the wars, the post-war years face the legacy of huge unsanitary and uncontrolled refuse tips especially surrounding the larger cities. Although local councils make efforts to legislate against the dumping of refuse, appalling situations develop throughout the country where vast tips up to a mile long burn continuously.
1947 - The Town and Country Planning Act gives authorities planning powers over new waste management sites, but most of the existing tips cannot be controlled.
During the post-war years, economics are against incineration, hence the domination of landfill in British waste disposal practice. Landfills are constructed at the most convenient cost and locations, with little thought of their environmental impact or consequences such as water pollution and methane gas. Contemporary consumer society evolves with the increase in production and consumption, as products are designed to be thrown away and packaging increases. Increased consumption inevitably generates an increase in manufacturing, industry, mining and quarrying, agricultural and food processing wastes.
However, the post-war period sees not only some effects from the boosted salvage industry stimulated by the demand for raw materials during the wars, but also increasing public awareness of the environment.
1956 - The Clean Air Act is passed signalling a decrease in the number of open fires in homes as they are replaced by central heating fuelled by oil, gas or electricity. Consequently the composition of household waste changes from being predominantly ash, dust and cinder from fires, to being made up of other wastes such as food and paper which would previously have been put on the fire.
1960 - A working party set up by the Duke of Edinburgh criticises the existing management of the countryside and the environment, especially waste management. Its recommendations lead to the setting up of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
1960s - Private waste contractors begin to take over in what had previously been considered a public works activity. In 1968, contractors come together to form the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors.
1970s - It takes a combination of increased new chemical waste, changing waste compositions after clean air legislation, and new health and safety guidelines to bring about the first serious waste regulations during the 1970s. This is also linked to concerns over energy use and the wider depletion of resources.
1971 - Some drums of cyanide waste are dumped at an abandoned brick kiln near Nuneaton, leading to a huge public outcry. The ensuing furore, along with press coverage of waste disposal drivers taking bribes to dump hazardous waste illegally, and a report by the Royal Commission on toxic wastes, provides a catalyst for the first ever legislation to control hazardous waste. The consequent Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act 1972 is drafted in 10 days and passed through Parliament within a month.
Friends of the Earth launch their first campaign by returning thousands of bottles to Schweppes, an environmental stunt which successfully uses the media in bringing issues of waste and product disposability to public attention.
1974 - Increasing concern over waste leads to the Control of Pollution Act 1974 which aims for a much wider control of waste disposal and regulation of sites, and begins a serious tightening up of waste disposal methods.
1977 - The first bottle banks appear in Britain
How beautiful it is to do nothing and rest afterwards...........