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Trash cans	in a city park

Making America Great Again, With Some Seriously Ancient Trash Talk


I bet it’s been a while since you stopped to think about the garbage you generate? As we navigate the corridors of life we each leave behind us a trail of trash but with trash cans and dumpsters in our homes, workplaces, streets, schools and restaurants, they have become such firm fixtures in our lives that we often take the destiny of our waste for granted. However, getting rid of trash has always been a social problem and this article explores the dilemma’s ancient origins and looks at how America is performing today, with results that are encouraging to say the very least. 

Ancient Environmental Habits

Ancient cultures regarded waste much differently from the way we look at it today and early civilizations reused and repaired what they could, rather than dumping it. Their waste was mostly ash from fires, broken wood, pottery, bones and vegetable matter. Food waste was used to feed animals and put in the ground to decompose. The oldest human poop samples, according to a recent National Geographic article , was discovered at El Salt in southern Spain, where researchers investigating fire pits for traces of meat fats unexpectedly found fossil feces, or coprolites, in a top hearth layer dated to 50,000 years ago. This occurrence informs specialists that early Mesolithic hunters simply ‘shat where they sat,’ and without as much as blinking as eyelid simply hurled it onto the fire

Hearth of fire pit uncovered in El Salt, southern Spain holding human fecal fossils. (Image: © 2014 Sistiaga et al/ CC BY SA)

Hearth of fire pit uncovered in El Salt, southern Spain holding human fecal fossils . (Image: © 2014 Sistiaga et al/ CC BY SA )

Coming forward in time 43,000 years, humans took baby steps and rather than burning their waste they used it as building materials. Knap of Howar is an ancient Neolithic farmstead situated on the island of Papa Westray in Orkney, Scotland, and is thought to be the oldest preserved stone houses in northern Europe, occupied between 3700 BC to 2800 BC. In the 1970s archaeologists found discarded food stuffs packed around the two stone buildings as insulation.

Discarded foodstuff was used to insulate these buildings at Knap of Howar, Scotland. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Discarded foodstuff was used to insulate these buildings at Knap of Howar, Scotland. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Green Wisdom Lost and Found

Ironically, it seems that while we advanced in so many ways as a species, as our populations grew we regressed so far as hygiene is concerned. From the time of the first villages, towns and cities we took an ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach to garbage and threw it onto the streets and buried it in holes in our gardens pretending it would go away. We often dumped trash in bodies of water, willfully poisoning the agricultural arteries that kept our fields fertile. However, at different locations and times throughout history there were leaders who attempted to clean up the streets. By 200 AD, for example, to deal with their growing population’s increasing garbage piles, Roman civic engineers began what might have been the first ‘sanitation teams;’ gangs of men who picked up street trash in carts and buried it in remote sites outside the settlements, villages towns and cities. Monumental Roman aqueducts provided urban centers with the large volumes of water required for drinking, bathing and other domestic needs, but after it was used it was recycled and flushed through the sewers.

Rome, Porta Maggiore, remains of aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Aqua Anio Novus, integrated into Aurelian Wall as a gate 271 AD. (Roger Uhlich/ CC BY-NC SA 3.0)

Rome, Porta Maggiore, remains of aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Aqua Anio Novus, integrated into Aurelian Wall as a gate 271 AD. (Roger Uhlich/ CC BY-NC SA 3.0 )

Cleaning Up the Messy Middle Ages

It would appear that rather than having advanced from these Roman sanitation systems, after the empire’s collapse Europe regressed over the next thousand years and during the early Middle Ages throwing trash into the streets was the only method of waste disposal. The cities of Europe hosted endless mountains of garbage causing a gut-wrenching stench and effective homes for super-colonies of rats and bacteria strains, which contaminated water supplies and facilitated the successful spread of the black plague.

By the mid-14th century it was suspected that the foul odors might transmit the plague and Britain passed a law insisting folk kept clean outdoor premises. The flaw in this public incentive was that nobody was employed to uphold the law and garbage continued to stack up around houses and in streets. Those few citizens who were health conscious began burning their trash, but conversely, this only added to the already toxic atmosphere surrounding the cities.

Clean and Green Legislation

Things changed sharply in 1354 when King Edward III of England ordered “rakers” to remove the refuse from the streets and hundreds of thousands of cartloads of waste were dumped in fields, ditches, the ocean and in rivers like the Thames in London. By 1388 the English Parliament had banned dumping waste in public waterways and ditches and around AD 1410 the British government had declared that waste must be stored inside, until rakers arrived to collect it. A article tells that in medieval London fines could be imposed on people who dumped waste in the street and one account talks of an “outraged mob badly beating a stranger who littered their street with the skin of a smoked fish, since they didn't want to have to pay the heavy fine for his laziness.”

Modern day mountain of garbage in Bantar Gebang, Indonesia, with excavators and trash treasure hunters. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Modern day mountain of garbage in Bantar Gebang, Indonesia, with excavators and trash treasure hunters. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By the 18th century, growing urban populations and the mass production of goods generated a massive increase in the amounts of trash being dumped in the gardens and streets around houses. However, while it had long been suspected, in 1842 British scientists reported that diseases might be linked to disgusting environmental conditions and so arrived what is known to historians as the Age of Sanitation. In America, Benjamin Franklin instigated the “cleaning service” which encouraged the public to discard waste in pits and in 1864, Health officials in Memphis, Tennessee, linked the increasing cases of Yellow Fever with the festering garbage in the city. Thus, laws were passed prohibiting the dumping of trash in the streets and by 1866 New York City’s Metropolitan Board of Health had banned the “throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets.”

A decade later in Britain scientists attempting to draw energy from waste released the “destructor” (incineration chamber) which produced steam generated electricity. However, these machines soon fell out of favor with the public because of the amount of ash and dust in the neighborhoods surrounding the incineration plants. At the beginning of the 20th century in America people dumped their trash in the most convenient places; the ocean, lochs, rivers, swamps and wetlands. It was not until 1875 that an effective garbage collection system appeared in England in the form of a can used to store ash from burned waste. The first garbage trucks in America appeared in 1897 and described as a “steam motor tip-car, a new design of body specific for the collection of dust and house refuse.”

Thornycroft Steam Dust-Cart of 1897 with tipper body. (Public Domain)

Thornycroft Steam Dust-Cart of 1897 with tipper body. ( Public Domain)

In 1914, as Europe collapsed into war, thousands of horse-drawn carts collected trash and took it to over 300 incinerators which were in operation throughout the U.S. and Canada. In the 1920s ‘reclaiming’ wetlands around cities to fill with garbage, ash, and dirt, became a popular disposal method until the 1930’s the first plastic trash cans showed up.

Today, we must offer absolute faith towards our environmental scientists in the hope that they succeed in their current efforts to design effective recycling systems, as a recent article on revealed a very concerning statistic; Americans alone generate 254 million tons of trash a year including 22 billion plastic bottles. But where many writers would leave their readers with an apocalyptic ending and crushing guilt, I will do just the opposite. America needs a pat on the back; according to recent statistics published on Land of Waste’s website: “they [Americans] currently recycle around 34.3 percent of their waste, and recycling and composting prevented 87.2 million tons of material from being disposed in 2013, up from 15 million tons in 1980.”

This is precisely how to make America great again. By leading from the front, on the things that matter.

Top image: Trash cans  in a city park    Source: Oleg1824f via Fotolia

By Ashley Cowie


Breyer, Melissa, Trash By the Numbers. July 2016. Treehugger. Available at:

History of the Garbage Man. Garbage Man Day. Available at:

Quora Contributor, How did people in the Middle Ages get rid of human waste? Dec 2013. Available at:

Vergano, Dan. What discovery of Oldest Human Poop Reveals About Neanderthals’ Diet. 2014. National Geographic. Available at:

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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