Historical Background

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Archaeologists have identified persistent themes in MSW management. For example, Bronze Age Trojans periodically became so offended by household waste that they covered it with clay; ancient Mesopotamian cities were invariably located upwind of remote garbage dumps; in Old Testament Jerusalem, people incinerated their garbage in the nearby valley of Gehenna (later a synonym for 'hell'); and the wealthy Classic Maya generated more reusable and recyclable trash than their poor Late Post-Classic descendants (Rathje and Murphy 1992).

For most of recorded history, household wastes not left on the floor were simply thrown outside the dwelling to decompose or to be scavenged. In rural areas this was not troubling because little other than food waste and ashes was thrown away. Used clothing, furniture, tools and weapons were carefully repaired or handed down, even in wealthy households. Rags were recycled for paper making. Some organic wastes such as fat and bones were used by households to make soap, candles and other items. In cities, similar patterns prevailed, with the addition of loosely organized groups of scavengers who recovered items of value from the street (Strasser 1999).

By the mid-18th century, rural Americans began digging refuse pits, and urbanization in cities like London and Philadelphia led to crowded conditions that made ad hoc waste disposal untenable, so public street cleaning began (Rathje and Murphy 1992). It took another century and a spate of cholera epidemics to make sanitation a fully accepted public responsibility in cities such as Chicago, New York, London and Hamburg (Gandy 1994).

The 19th century also brought large-scale industrialization and laissez-faire capitalism to Europe and North America. With them came mass-produced products, widespread participation in the cash economy by women, less household self-sufficiency, a disruption of historical patterns of recycling, repair and re-use, and an absolute avalanche of municipal solid waste (Strasser 1999). Rathje and Murphy (1992, p.41) quote the historian Martin Melosi: 'one of the great ironies of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism was that it gave rise to a kind of "municipal socialism" as cities were forced to shoulder responsibility for such duties as public safety and sanitation'.

Scavengers have not disappeared, so that a tension persists to this day between the public and private aspects of waste management. Waste could be privately managed, but it is often publicly managed to reduce the negative externalities. Even if it remains a public responsibility, either public employees or private contractors could perform the work. We could dispose of waste in the most convenient, least costly way possible, or we could thoroughly mine it for valuable or hazardous constituents. New actors motivated by outrage at wasteful consumerism, and by concern for environmental sustainability, have added a moral dimension to the debate. Rapid technological change is further complicating matters, as explained below. Many parts of the developing world are still making the transition to a formal, institutionalized scheme for solid waste management (Onibokun 1999).

Dumping, incineration, resource recovery and source reduction have been the key waste management strategies throughout history, and they remain with us today. Yet dumping has evolved rapidly over two centuries from tossing household waste out of the front door, to placing it in a hole in the back yard, to delivering it to an open and unlined dump, to burying it in an engineered, lined landfill with methane collection. Incineration has evolved equally rapidly during the same period from open burning in the back yard, to large-scale urban 'cremators' that controlled combustion very poorly and generated noxious smoke, to slightly cleaner second-generation incinerators, to modern incinerators with emissions controls and energy recovery. Thermochemical reduction technology is a century-old variant that recovers useful products; there are also biologically based processes ranging from traditional composting to designer microbes. Recycling, remanufac-turing, repair and re-use are ever-present activities that used to take place primarily within the household and now involve centralized sorting facilities and extensive networks of economic and political actors (see Andrews and Maurer 2001 and Chapter 41). Source reduction, formerly the unwilling choice of the newly poor, has evolved into a management strategy that combines behavior modification techniques and engineering design tools. The opportunity to choose among these strategies ensures controversy because their relative strengths and weaknesses change rapidly.

The waste stream itself also changes rapidly, as new materials, products and services are invented, and as people's wealth and aspirations grow. Over the past century in the USA, for example, its magnitude has multiplied and its primary components have shifted from food waste and ashes to yard waste and paper. The changes continue, as is discussed below.

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