Then and Now: How Proper Waste Disposal Has Evolved Over Time

Did you know that landfills are one of the oldest forms of waste treatment? Historically, landfills have been the most popular method of organized waste disposal around the world. The term “landfill” is actually shorthand for a sanitary landfill or municipal landfill. The facilities were first introduced in the early 20th century and gained wider use in the 1960s and '70s.

But, let’s go back further.  

Improper Waste Removal and the Spread of Disease

Historically, trash was just thrown out of immediate living areas. Particularly in large cities, both trash and human waste alike were simply tossed into streets or outside of the gates. Needless to say, what was considered to be the proper method of “waste removal” at this time didn’t remove the waste at all. As these cities continued to increase in size and population, so did their spread of disease. 

From the bubonic plague, to cholera and typhoid fever, many well-known diseases throughout history were spread through contaminated water and rodents that harbored disease. For years, cities were ravaged by widespread diseases with no solution, or clear cause, in sight. 

The First Garbage Collection 

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1800s that mankind learned how tossing waste into the streets greatly contributed to the spread of devastating outbreaks. Once the connection between sewage, trash, filth, and disease was discovered, European city dwellers began to rethink throwing their waste out of their windows for it to decompose in nearby streets. 

Despite the spread of deadly disease, many countries like France famously resisted changing their waste removal traditions. However, by the late 1800s, most major European cities were on board with garbage collection and disposal. By the 1880s, horse-drawn carts were used for collecting garbage. Upon collection, the waste was disposed of in incinerators, at sea, or in open dumps. 

These methods were only sustainable for a brief time. According to the EPA, the garbage collection in New York City took in 4.6 pounds of trash per person every day by 1916. 

Incineration and Contamination of Groundwater

In the first half of the 20th century, garbage was routinely collected and incinerated. Many apartment complexes were built with garbage incinerators in their basements in addition to trash shoot systems. 

The dirt and ash from these incinerators were used to fill swamps and low lying wetlands around cities. Unfortunately, this allowed for the contamination of groundwater and was not a sustainable solution.

The Precursor to the Modern Landfill

The precursor to the modern landfill model was first attempted in 1935 in California. Trash was deposited in a hole in the ground, which was periodically covered in dirt. While this created a safer alternative that did not pollute groundwater or spread disease as easily, there was still a long way for sanitation to go. Without regulations, these holes were simply buried once they were filled with trash.

It wasn’t until 1959 that the American Society of Civil Engineers published their guidelines for a sanitary landfill. These guidelines suggested that compacting waste and covering that waste with a later of soil every day would help control rodents and reduce odors. 

Why Landfills Need Liners and Covers

At this point in time, landfills were created by excavating a trench or hole, filling it with trash, and covering the trash with soil. In most of these instances, the waste was deposited directly on top of underlying soils. There was no barrier or containment layer such as a liner to prevent water from percolating through the waste and gathering contaminants like leachate. Without liners, these early landfills often inadvertently contaminated groundwater like their predecessors.


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