Resources History of Waste Management: Part 1

Waste Not, Want Not

The importance of recycling and compost cannot be viewed as a stand-alone topic without recognising its place in the larger scheme of things – waste management. I know it may seem like an odd place to start. But when you consider our humble beginnings and review where we are today, it becomes imperative that we learn from the past.

Our life as cave dwellers, hunter-gatherers or roaming nomads in the early days was relatively simple. Finished your chicken dinner? Just dump those carcasses and bones out the door. Broken pottery and tools? You know where the entrance of the cave is! Just heave what you were finished with out the door; no questions asked.

You could say our ancestors were pioneers of the “throw-away” society. But then again, things were pretty manageable back then. We simply moved on or ploughed any decomposing muck back into our vegetable patches. Land was plentiful and the thought of waste management was unheard of.

However, being sociable creatures we soon banded together in communities, which grew and grew. Towns and cities flourished. We were soon packed into increasingly cramped quarters; living, working and creating waste as a collective group. And that’s when things started to get complicated…

And We All Fall Down

Perhaps you’ve heard this children’s nursery rhyme, even recited it once:

Ring a-round the rosy
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes!
We all fall down!

Would it shock you to know that this innocent-sounding rhyme originated in medieval times, as far back as the 14th century in fact, to ward off the then inexplicable outbreak that was ravaging Europe? Otherwise also known as the Black Death? That “ring-a-round the rosy” refers to rosary beads, that pockets were stuffed with posies to overcome the smell of rotting flesh while “ashes” refer to the burning of corpses? Shudder.

At the height of this devastating plague, between 1347 to 1352, two-thirds of Europe’s population perished. Researchers and historians have determined that the deadly yersinia pestis bacterium was transmitted to humans and animals by Oriental Rat Fleas. While there is no doubt now that an explosion in the infected rat population began it all, it was the squalor in which the people lived that perpetuated such a cycle of devastation.

Medieval Europe was a filthy, filthy place. But so was every other civilisation of the time – including Asia. It was here that the Black Death had begun its destructive march. It started from the plains of the Gobi desert till it eventually found its way to other parts of Asia and Europe via established trade routes. Between the 13th to 17th century, it claimed an estimated 200 million victims.

The rapid spread of the plague was inevitable, considering that many of these medieval civilisations had very little concept of public health or waste management. Rubbish was thrown willy-nilly out into the streets, down congested gutters or burnt openly. Groupings of traders in towns and cities perpetuated health hazards, with mass amounts of waste and refuse accumulating in certain quarters of the towns and cities. For example, in the London of that time, butchers were sited in what was then known as Stinking Lane. You can imagine the condition of that locality to warrant such a distinctive name. Imagine the rodents that thrived and multiplied happily under such hospitable conditions; and on their backs, the Oriental Rat Fleas!

Misplaced Wisdom

It wasn’t that entire civilisations of those times were completely ignorant of the nuisance of mounting rubbish. Unfortunately, that was also where the seed of the problem lay. From as far back as ancient times, growing mounds of rubbish were an acknowledged nuisance, but seen as little more.

There is evidence of early attempts at regulating waste disposal. For example, municipal landfills were in use as early as 3000 BC in Crete and 500 BC in Athens. In places like China, separating waste was practised to enable recycling of vegetable waste as feed for livestock and incorporated with manure as fertiliser.

In early England, authorities took a stab at implementing laws to regulate waste disposal. Traders who brought produce into a city were required to carry solid waste back out of that city and dispose of them in the countryside. House owners were encouraged to keep the front of their homes clear and to eradicate pigsties conveniently plonked on their doorsteps. In 1408, King Henry IV of England decreed that household rubbish were to be kept indoors until rakers came to collect them in carts. These were taken to the countryside and buried or loaded onto ships to be taken away.

All these practices indicate that authorities were aware of the problem of growing waste. Nevertheless, the principles of waste management – that is, waste collection, segregation, disposal and recycling – had not germinated yet. The realisation that unsanitary waste disposal methods would lead to disease and death was way, way into the future.

As we shall see later on, it would take another 400 years or so for developed nations like Great Britain and the United States to acknowledge the link, get their acts together and devise a more cohesive strategy. In the shorter term, it appeared that collective amnesia was the order of the day. The bubonic plague that had struck most of Europe and Asia in the 14th century was never entirely eradicated; simmering beneath the surface with sporadic outbreaks here and there. A noteworthy recurrence was the Great Plague of 1665, during which 15 percent of London’s population perished and King Charles II’s court was forced to relocate to Oxford.

Even in modern times, bubonic plagues have never fully gone away; merely controlled. In the United States, the last-recorded rat-borne plague occurred in California in 1924. Today, the World Health Organisation continues to record approximately 3,000 cases a year.


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