A Short History of Landfilling

May 21, 1997

By Michael Jessen

The practice of landfilling garbage is as old as time. It has always been the preferred method of disposal.

Indigenous cultures of prehistoric North America filled acres upon acres with clam and oyster shells left over from feasts. One such dump in what is now Pope's Creek, Maryland spanned 30 acres and averaged 10 feet in depth.

At Altun Ha, a classic Mayan site in Belize dating back to 800 BC, archaeologists found that many of the objects tossed were still useable -- suggesting that today's "throw-away" tendencies also have strong precedents.

As people formed settlements of towns and cities, they had to find ways of getting rid of garbage. They often took the easiest route.

In Bronze Age Troy, much household garbage simply fell onto the dirt floor. When the floor got messy with animal bones and other debris, it was covered with a fresh layer of clay and soil.

Most of the bulkier garbage of ancient and medieval towns was thrown into the streets. Pigs and dogs gobbled up food scraps, and human scavengers sold anything valuable.

During the industrial revolution, urban populations swelled and rubbish in the streets piled up, creating highly unsanitary conditions. In 19th century Boston, scavengers picked through the Back Bay dumps and carried on a brisk trade in rags for paper making and clothing.

Garbage scavenging is still practised in many Third World countries, including Egypt, where 80 per cent of scavenged garbage -- including the filaments of light bulbs -- is recycled.

It was not until 1895 that New York City began the first comprehensive garbage management program in the U.S.

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