Garbage: Bin there, done that
Over the years, not only has the nation’s system for collecting and disposing of its trash changed, but so has the definition of the word “trash.” As early as 1910, the American Public Health Association was classifying municipal waste into two general categories: organic matters (which could include sewage, depending on a town’s disposal systems) and inorganic substances.
According to an article in The American City (March 1910), collection and disposal of municipal waste often was handled by “men who are ignorant of the rudiments of sanitation and, moreover, utterly indifferent to it.” The magazine warned that improper collection and disposal led to outbreaks of typhoid, plague, cholera, diphtheria, pneumonia and influenza.
During the early part of the century, garbage (basically defined as food waste), comprised about an eighth of the total volume of municipal waste. New York City collected a half-pound of food waste per person daily.
Rubbish (inorganic substances), much of it paper and paper products, comprised about one-fifth of the nation’s waste. Much of that was reused – the term recycling had not yet come into vogue. In the early 1900s, for instance, New York sold part of its refuse to a contractor who paid about $1,500 a week to collect, sort and re-sell the city’s rubbish. At the same time, Buffalo, N.Y., was re-selling its paper waste and making a tidy profit in the process. Other cities, including Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., were paying contractors to separate usable waste.
Household ashes made up the largest element in municipal waste. Much of that, too, was reusable, but cities seemed indifferent to the possibilities. According to The American City, New York annually buried 300,000 tons of ash at Riker’s Island, in the process losing more than $400,000 worth of usable coal.
By 1940, America was collecting and disposing of “refuse,” which was defined as garbage, rubbish (combustible and non-combustible), ashes, street refuse, dead animals, abandoned automobiles and industrial waste.
The term “solid waste,” which came into common use well into the 1970s, encompasses everything defined as refuse – and much more.
The term has changed, as has the composition of what is now called solid waste. An analysis of the composition of refuse in 1941 showed significant amounts of linoleum/oilcloth and ash. Plastic and aluminum were not part of the refuse stream. The percentage of paper being discarded has increased some 50 percent, while the amount of food waste has dropped by about the same percentage. Those changes are indicative of changing American lifestyles.
Early collection methods
Early collection methods involved the use of lice nsed “scavengers,” with whom individual communities contracted for the removal of their waste. The collectors gathered waste in barrels, which were placed on wagons. The waste was then delivered to hog and chicken farms to be fed to the animals.
The system was seriously flawed. One city’s public works department issued a report, which read, in part: “The principal objection to the present system of collection is due to the irregularity with which the collections are made in some parts of the city and the total absence of any system of collection in other parts. Cans of garbage are, at times, left to stand along the curb for several hours, awaiting the irregular coming of the garbage collector. As a rule, the garbage receptacles are not provided with covers and are frequently overturned by dogs and mischievous children.”
Many cities contracted with “ashmen” for removal of their ash, often requiring them to use wagons with covers to prevent the material from blowing away. Ash was transported to municipal dumps and unloaded.
By the end of the century’s first decade, a number of towns had established their own collection systems, and most of what was collected was burned in incinerators. Most towns required homeowners to use three receptacles: one for garbage, one for ash and one for rubbish.
By mid-century, most cities had collection systems in place. Every day, men physically picked up containers of refuse, carried them to some type of collection vehicle, and emptied and returned them. Then, horse- and mule-drawn wagons took the refuse to dump sites. Open-body dump and stake trucks with high loading heights and no compaction were just being phased in and did not have either detachable containers or standard-sized storage containers. The 1950s and 1960s brought rapid changes in the business, as compaction bodies (rear and front-end loaders) and detachable containers were introduced.
Rapid urbanization and the cessation of on-site burning of refuse increased the amount of refuse that had to be collected. That, in turn, resulted in demands for better collection vehicles, and more and larger dumps in more distant locations. Long-distance transport of refuse brought about the development of transfer systems.
>From the 1970s on, the changes in the country’s solid waste collection and >disposal system fell into two primary categories: technology and >management. Operators of collection systems took steps to reduce the >number of collectors and to optimize collection services to hold down >costs. Mechanized collection, which allowed for reduction of the work >force and eliminated the physical loading of trucks, came into its own.
After the Solid Waste Disposal Act passed in 1965, federal research dollars helped foster the development of automated collection equipment and the development of techniques to encourage more effective collection systems and optimize routing.
Automated collection for residential solid waste pickup had a number of positive effects, including: * a dramatic reduction in worker injuries; * a reduction in the number of people it took to collect solid waste (labor was the most costly element of collection); * replacement of the galvanized iron can and 55-gallon drums; * elimination of open dumping of refuse at the curb; and * the emergence of plastic and paper bags, and the plastic storage container and cart.
Additionally, a new line of equipment was developed for the collection of recyclables.
Getting rid of the waste
In the early part of the 1900s, much of the country’s raw garbage was fed to swine – at least until public health studies disclosed that eating pork from garbage-fed swine could cause trichinosis. That discovery led to garbage “cooking,” but, since cooking garbage was not always effective against trichinosis, the problem remained. In addition, the cost of cooking garbage to ensure that it contained no raw materials was prohibitive for local governments. Eventually, cities sought less expensive disposal methods, usually landfills.
Before the end of World War II, food waste grinders were not common household appliances. Most garbage wound up in garbage cans that attracted flies and rats. Large-scale garbage grinders were used by some local governments and commercial and industrial enterprises, and the end product was used for feeding swine. (Today, the practice of feeding garbage to pigs no longer exists.)
Some local governments tried grinding garbage and using the sewer collection system to transport it from central grinding stations to wastewater treatment plants. However, that approach resulted in significant increases in suspended solids, grit and sludge at the treatment plants, and the local governments began refusing to issue permits for grinding facilities’ discharges.
For much of the early part of the century, disposal of municipal waste meant burning. As early as 1885, a “government garbage furnace” was erected on Governor’s Island in New York’s harbor, and, shortly afterward, the first municipal garbage “crematories” were installed in Wheeling, W.Va.; Allegheny, Pa.; and Des Moines, Iowa. The chief disadvantage of those incinerators was that they could only be used for organic material. “Rubbish crematories” were installed in Boston and Buffalo, N.Y. By 1910, a few cities still were disposing of their rubbish by dumping it at sea.
By the late ’30s, on-site household and industrial incinerators were common. The practice was encouraged to reduce the amount of putrescibles in storage containers and thereby reduce odors and food for flies and rats. In addition to the ubiquitous burn barrel, Americans could buy specially designed domestic incinerators that could be installed in their homes.
Centrally located incineration facilities were attractive because they minimized hauling distances. By the beginning of the 1940s, some 700 refuse incinerators existed in the United States. Those facilities, while they may have represented the best technology of the time, had minimal, if any, air pollution control equipment. Additionally, burnout was poor, and the incinerators were not good neighbors.
As a result, federal, state and local governments moved to ban incineration in the ’50s and ’60s. Bans on burning refuse resulted in demands for additional collection services and a need for additional landfill capacity.
Despite that push to reduce incineration, the energy crisis of the ’70s and the promotion of incineration by the federal solid waste program led to new interest in burning solid waste. During the ’70s and ’80s, more than 60 waste combustion plants were built; almost all of them were waste-to-energy facilities.
A strictly American innovation, refuse derived fuel (RDF) waste-to-energy (WTE) technology was developed during that same time. The birth of a special industry to provide WTE services to local governments also was unique to the United States. Today, almost all the country’s 103 WTE facilities are joint ownerships/partnerships between WTE vendors and local governments. They include the latest technology and the most advanced air pollution controls in the world.
Composting and recycling
Composting (reusing organic waste) has been popular in Europe and Asia for many decades, but, between the 1940s and 1960s, a lack of technical data on composting processes limited its use in the United States. In the ’60s and ’70s, the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) invested heavily in MSW composting research and development, and, by the end of the ’70s, much of the basic engineering and scientific data sought by Americans had been provided.
After the ’70s, a number of MSW composting plants were built in the United States, but all have closed because of either market conditions and/or the inability of management to successfully operate the plants. MSW composting is not a part of integrated solid waste management today.
Not much is known about early composting practices for green (yard) wastes. However, despite the fact that the process, market conditions and operational challenges for yard waste composting are no different than those for MSW composting, green waste composting emerged as a serious MSW management method in the late 1980s. It currently is a successful part of integrated solid waste management. That is largely because: * many states have banned green wastes from landfills and combustion facilities; * many states have set mandatory diversion rates to encourage recycling; and * local governments are investing money to comply with the bans and diversion rates and compost green wastes even though the markets are often weak.
As far as inorganic materials go, recycling (known as salvage and reclamation until the late ’60s) by commercial and industrial enterprises has been a common practice for many decades. Rendering was, and still is, an active recycling process. Newspaper, cardboard and scrap metal from old cars and used appliances have been salvaged and reclaimed for years.
Colonel Waring, New York City’s street cleaning commissioner at the end of the last century, provided leadership for recycling household refuse by establishing programs that processed mixed refuse to separate glass bottles, steel cans, cardboard, rags and felt hats. New York’s success encouraged other cities to try recycling, but the Great Depression effectively ended those efforts.
Recycling rebounded during WWII, when newspapers, string, tin cans, grease, aluminum and tinfoil were patriotically separated and returned for recycling. The fascination with recycling, however, did not survive the war, and landfills became the management method of choice – purely on the basis of economics.
In 1965-1966, the USPHS commenced a major research program for resource recovery programs, including composting, materials separation and waste-to-energy conversion. In 1970, the Resource Recovery Act amended the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act, and brought about a shift in federal interest from landfills to recycling. Leadership by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (the USPHS solid waste program was shifted to EPA in 1970-1971) helped increase funding for resource recovery research and development.
In 1989, EPA launched the integrated solid waste management initiative that ignited the recycling movement that continues today. Recycling now accounts for the management of approximately 24 percent of the U.S. MSW stream. (The amount of refuse being recycled has nearly doubled in the last 10 years.)
The sanitary landfill
What could not be reused, of course, had to be dumped. But for most of the early part of the 1900s, rubbish dumps had poor reputations. They suffered from problems that included open burning; leaching of refuse in surface and groundwaters; scavenging; lack of gas control; and lack of monitoring to determine potential impacts on environmental quality. Dumps and landfills were breeding places for flies, rats and mosquitoes, and cafeterias for swine and birds – in general, very bad neighbors.
The dump began evolving into the sanitary landfill before WWII when a few local governments sought ways to deal with flies and rats. During WWII, the Army, faced with the exponential growth of bases and camps, developed landfills with soil cover and compaction to manage refuse from military installations. After the war, the USPHS launched a national effort to replace dumps with sanitary landfills to combat air pollution problems and concerns about disease transmission.
>From 1966 to 1991, the United States shifted from using open burning dumps >to what might be arguably called the finest sanitary landfills in the >world. In addition, two new industries – the conversion of landfill gas to >energy and landfill environmental monitoring – were created.
Much of the change can be attributed to the establishment of well-defined regulations. The sanitary landfill now includes a number of safeguards to protect human health and the environment: * special citing requirements; * regulations preventing open burning; * regulations preventing contact with surface or ground waters; * waste screening to prevent disposal of unacceptable solid wastes; * elimination of bulk liquids, lead acid batteries and hazardous wastes; * daily cover of compacted soil or other alternate daily cover materials; * management of the final cover, groundwater monitoring, landfill gas monitoring and leachate and landfill gas management for 30 years after closure; * prevention of disposal in the 100-year flood plain, if it restricts the flood flow; * monitoring of groundwater and landfill gas; * corrective action if groundwater is contaminated; * financial assurance for corrective action and closure and post-closure management; * control of landfill gas emissions and migration; and * control of stormwater. Today, sanitary landfills provide capacity for some 60 to 65 percent of the MSW generated in the United States.
The history of the country’s solid waste collection and disposal is one of aiming toward the most practical, environmentally benign methods of getting rid of garbage. Over the years, the nation has gone from collecting solid waste on the backs of horses, mules and men to the use of mechanical and automated systems. It has: * eliminated such unsavory practices as feeding garbage to swine; * eliminated the backyard burn drum; * closed some 700 air-polluting incinerators and replaced them with modern waste-to-energy plants that generate enough electricity for 2.4 million American homes; * implemented a recycling and composting system that is fully en-trenched as a management method; and * returned 49 million tons of materials from MSW for beneficial use in 1994; and replaced over 10,000 open burning dumps with fewer than 3,000 modern, safe sanitary landfills.
Lanier Hickman is the former executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, Washington, D.C.