History of waste management
Historically, the amount of waste generated by humans was insignificant due to low population density, coupled with insignificant exploitation of natural resources. Common waste produced during early human history was mainly ashes and human biodegradable waste, and these were released back into the ground locally, with minimum environmental impact.
Before the widespread use of metals, wood was widely used for most applications. However, reuse of wood has been well documented. Nevertheless, it is once again well documented that reuse and recovery of such metals have been carried out by earlier humans.
The Maya of Central America had dumps, which exploded occasionally and burned. They also recycled. Homemakers brought trash to local dumps, and monthly burnings would occur. Many Mayan sites demonstrated such careless consumption. Consumption and waste of resources is probably related to supply available more than any other factor.
With the advent of industrial revolution, waste management became a critical issue. This was due to the increase in population and the massive migration of people to industrial towns and cities from rural areas during the 18th century. There was a consequent increase in industrial and domestic wastes posing threat to human health and the environment.
Waste has played a tremendous role in history. The Bubonic Plague, cholera and typhoid fever, to mention a few, were diseases that altered the populations of Europe and influenced monarchies. They were perpetuated by filth that harbored rats, and contaminated water supply. It was not uncommon for Europeans to throw their waste and human wastes out of the window which would decompose in the street.
France, specifically Paris seems to have been a leader in poor waste management.
“The famed Paris sewer system was created over a long period of time in the second half of the 19th century. The long delays were largely due to the virulent opposition of property owners, who did not want to pay to install sanitary piping to their buildings. The Prefect of Paris, Monsieur Poubelle, succeeded in forcing garbage cans on the property owners in 1887 only after a ferocious public battle. This government interference in the individual’s right to throw his garbage in the street – which was, in reality, the property owner’s right to leave his tenants no other option – made Poubelle into the ‘cryptosocialist’ of the hour. In 1900 owners were still fighting against the obligations to put their buildings on the public sewer system and to cooperate in the collection of garbage. By 1910 a little over half of the city’s buildings were on the sewer system and only half of the cities in France had any sewers at all.
“Photos of early-twentieth-century Marseilles show great piles of refuse and excrement down the centre of the streets. Cholera outbreaks were common and ravaged the population. In 1954 the last city without, St. Remy de Provence, installed sewers.
“It was the gradual creation of an effective bureaucracy which brought an end to all this filth and disease, and the public servants did so against the desires of the mass of the middle and upper classes. The free market opposed sanitation. The rich opposed it. The civilized opposed it. Most of the educated opposed it. That is why it took a century to finish what could have been done in ten years” Adapted from John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards – The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.
Timeline of events
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