Solid Waste & Recycling


“Opinion” Back to the Future for Collectors

In tribute to this issue’s look at front lines workers, we step back in time for the abridged version of the history of waste management. Of course, the earliest hunters and gatherers were history’s best composters because they produced negligible waste that was 100 per cent natural. As far back as the Mayans, sizeable human populations have created systems to deal with waste—these tribespeople gathered as a community on a set monthly schedule to burn any waste that wasn’t naturally returned to the earth.

The first landfill was developed in 3000 BC in Knossos, Crete—it comprised a number of holes filled with trash and filled to various levels. China was working on composting and recycling efforts as far back as 2000 BC, and in 500 BC, Athens, Greece mandated garbage must be dumped at least one mile from the city.

The first collectors, called rakers, appeared in London during the Black Plague in the early 1300s—they would gather trash into carts once a week while trying (often unsuccessfully) to stay alive. In 1350 Britain tried to legislate “a clean front yard,” but people more or less continued to burn garbage in piles until 1388 when the English parliament finally banned dumping into ditches and waterways and just a few years later a law came into effect mandating trash must be left outside until rakers came to collect it.

The industrial revolution brought more machinery, more trash, and a lust for opportunity. Toshers, mudlarks, and dustmen were slang names for the men who collected and sold industrial garbage, including dog feces for its ability to purify leather and ash, used to strengthen mortar.

Between 1900 and 1920, organized waste collection was booming in North America with around 70 per cent of major centres using a waste management system, the most common of which was using collectors. Trash was collected in horsedrawn, open vehicles and dumped into local waterways, wetlands, or other areas deemed uninhabited until covered, motorized trucks came on the scene in 1914. Not long after, the rear loader made its debut.

Soon war efforts made recycling and repurposing the norm, and North America never went back. Private hauling was born in the 60s, and not long after, the transfer station concept was born. Throughout the next decades, regulations and legislation governing waste management technique, safety, scheduling, ownership, and responsibility have evolved almost as fast as the types of waste produced. Throughout the entire process the nature of the work for collectors has slowly evolved, but it still remains a difficult, under-appreciated, and often dangerous job.

Associations in both Canada and the US are working with government and industry to create safer, more supportive environments for the men and women working the front lines in waste management. Check out David McRobert’s case study on the Respect the Collect program (page 10) as just one example. If you know of other instances and initiatives aimed at improving worker safety, please drop me a line. Until next time …

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