A Garbage Timeline

Early advertisement for a garbage disposal
An early advertisement for a garbage disposal.

See the timeline below for a selective history of America's relationship with garbage.


pre-1800 | 1800-1900 | 1900-1950 | 1950 +

1657 New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) passes a law against casting waste in the streets.
1690 The Rittenhouse mill, America's first paper mill, opens in Philadelphia making paper from recycled cotton and linen as well as used paper.
ca.1710 Colonists in Virginia commonly bury their trash. Holes are filled with building debris, broken glass or ceramic objects, oyster shells, and animal bones. They also throw away hundreds of suits of armor that were sent to protect colonists from the arrows of native inhabitants.
1792 Benjamin Franklin uses slaves to carry Philadelphia's waste downstream.
1810 Peter Durand patents the "tin can."
1834 Charleston, West Virginia, enacts a law protecting vultures from hunters. The birds help eat the city's garbage.
1850s Junk dealers in Reno, Nevada, scavenge personal belongings from the Oregon, Santa Fe, and California trails. Pioneers abandoned the items on the long trek west.
1860s American newspapers are now printed on paper made from wood pulp fibers rather than rags.
1860s Residents of Washington, D.C., dump garbage and slop into alleys and streets, pigs roam freely, slaughterhouses spew nauseating fumes, and rats and cockroaches infest most dwellings including the White House.
1866 New York City's Metropolitan Board of Health declares war on garbage, forbidding the "throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets."
1868 Brothers I.S. and John Hyatt successfully manufacture "celluloid," the first commercial synthetic plastic. It replaces wood, ivory, metal and linen in such items as combs, billiard balls, eyeglass frames, and shirt collars.
1872 New York City stops dumping its garbage from a platform built out over the East River.
1879 "Thither were brought the dead dogs and cats, the kitchen garbage and the like, and duly dumped. This festering, rotten mess was picked over by rag pickers and wallowed over by pigs, pigs and humans contesting for a living from it, and as the heaps increased, the odors increased also, and the mass lay corrupting under a tropical sun, dispersing the pestilential fumes where the winds carried them." Minister describing the New Orleans dump to the American Public Health Association.
1879 Frank Woolworth opens the first five and dime store in Utica, New York. He pioneers the idea of displaying goods on open counters so customers can see and feel merchandise (a practice that later makes larger, theft proof packaging necessary).
1880s Many Americans still believe that diseases such as typhoid fever are caused by "miasma" or gases coming from garbage and sewers.
1880 New York City scavengers remove 15,000 horse carcasses from the streets.
1885 The nation's first garbage incinerator is built on Governor's Island, New York.
1885 - 1908 180 garbage incinerators are built in the United States.
1889 "Appropriate places for [refuse] are becoming scarcer year by year, and the question as to some other method of disposal...must soon confront us. Already the inhabitants in proximity to the public dumps are beginning to complain." Health Officer's report, Washington, D.C.
1892 Beer bottles now sport a metal cap to prevent spoilage.
1893 "The means resorted to by a large number of citizens to get rid of their garbage and avoid paying for its collection would be very amusing were it not such a menace to public health. Some burn it, while others wrap it up in paper and carry it on their way to work and drop it when unobserved, or throw it into vacant lots or into the river." Boston Sanitary Committee
1894 The citizens of Alexandria, Virginia, are disgusted by the sight of bargeloads of garbage floating down the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. They take to sinking the barges upriver from their community.
1895 King C. Gillette, a traveling salesman, invents a razor with disposable blades.
1896 New York City requires residents to separate household waste -- food waste in one tin, ash in another, and dry trash in bag or bundle -- and assigns 40 policemen to enforce the new edict.
1896 Chicago's City Council records its concern for the death rate in the 19th Ward, which has eight miles of unpaved roads that can't be swept, roads "polluted to the last degree with trampled garbage, excreta, and other vegetable and animal refuse of the vilest description."
1898 Colonel George Waring, New York's Street Cleaning Commissioner, organizes the country's first rubbish sorting plant for recycling.
1899 The federal Rivers and Harbors Act restricts dumping in navigable rivers, to keep them open for shipping.
19th c. Visitors describe New York City as a "nasal disaster, where some streets smell like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia."
19th c. Pigs loose in city streets throughout the country eat garbage and leave their own wastes behind.
ca.1900 Greater acceptance of the germ theory of disease begins to shift the job of garbage removal from health departments to public works departments. Health officers, it is felt, should spend their time battling infectious diseases, not cleaning up "public nuisances" such as garbage.
1900 There are over 3 million horses working in American cities, each producing over 20 pounds of manure and gallons of urine every day, most of which is left on streets.
1900 Hills Brothers Coffee in San Francisco puts the first vacuum packed coffee on the market.
Early 1900s American cities begin to estimate and record collected wastes. According to one estimate, each American produces annually: 80 - 100 pounds of food waste; 50 - 100 pounds of rubbish; 300 - 1,200 pounds of wood or coal ash -- up to 1,400 pounds per person. In Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, each citizen produces annually: 141 pounds of wet garbage, 1,443 pounds of ash, and 88 pounds of dry rubbish -- a total of 1,672 pounds.
Early 1900s Small and medium sized towns build piggeries, where swine are fed fresh or cooked garbage. One expert estimates that 75 pigs can eat one ton of refuse per day.
1902 A survey of 161 cities by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds that 79% of them provide regular collection of refuse.
1903 Corrugated paperboard containers are now used commercially.
1904 The nation's first aluminum recycling plants open in Chicago and Cleveland.
1904 Postmaster General Henry Clay Payne authorizes permit mail. This means that with a single fee, 2,000 or more pieces of third or fourth class mail can be posted without stamps. This opens the door for direct mail advertising and mass solicitations.
1904 Montgomery Ward mails out 3 million catalogues weighing four pounds each.
1905 New York City begins using a garbage incinerator to generate electricity to light the Williamsburg Bridge.
1907 An unexpectedly thick run of toilet paper is converted to become the first paper towels.
1908 Paper cups replace tin cups at water vending machines on trains and in public buildings.
1909 "Kraft" paper pulp first made in the United States, a process developed in Germany in 1883.
By 1909 102 of 180 incinerators built since 1885 are abandoned or dismantled. Many had been inadequately built or run. Also, America's abundant land and widely spaced population made dumping garbage cheaper and more practical.
ca. 1910 - 1917 Juvenile sanitation leagues become popular in cities throughout the country.
ca. 1910 City beautification programs become more and more popular. Many cities have juvenile sanitation leagues whose members promise to help keep streets and neighborhoods clean. Sanitation workers wear white uniforms, reminiscent of other public workers such as doctors and nurses.
1914 W.K. Kellogg invents a wax paper wrapper for Corn Flakes boxes.
1915 The National Clean Up and Paint Up Bureau sponsors 5,000 local clean up campaigns.
1916 Major cities estimate that of the 1,000 to 1,750 pounds of waste generated by each person per year, 80% is coal and wood ash.
1916 Waxed paper is commonly used to wrap bread.
1916 A major shortage of paper pulp during World War I leads Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield to ask the public to save old paper and rags to make new paper.
1916 Dr. Thomas Jasperson obtains a patent for making paper from de inked wastepaper.
1917 Shortages of raw materials during World War I prompt the federal government to start the Waste Reclamation Service, part of the War Industries Board. Its motto is "Don't Waste Waste -- Save It." Every article of waste is considered valuable for industry.
1920 The first commercial radio broadcast. The technology held far reaching implications for advertising and purchasing. Americans buy 1.5 million radios within the year.
1920s During this decade, "reclaiming" or filling in wetlands near cities with garbage, ash, and dirt, becomes a popular disposal method.
1924 The Kleenex facial tissue is introduced.
1926 Clarence Saunders opens the first supermarket. Pre packaged food and self service packaging increase selection for consumers and lower the cost of food.
1928 Teleprinters and teletypewriters come into use.
1928 Cellophane is invented by the DuPont Cellophane Company. The transparent material is used as a protective wrapping for food and other products.
1929 Aluminum foil is invented.
1930 A new plastic, polyvinyl chloride, is patented by B.F. Goodrich. It is used as a replacement for rubber, as protection against corrosion, and for adhesives.
1930 Another plastic, polystyrene, is put on the market by the German firm, I.G. Farben, and also produced by Dow Chemical Company. The hard, shiny material is molded into tackle boxes, refrigerator linings, and other items.
1930s Kimberly Clark develops disposable sanitary pads.
1932 The development of compactor garbage trucks increases vehicle capacity.
1933 Communities on the New Jersey shore obtain a court order forcing New York City to stop dumping garbage in the Atlantic Ocean. On July 1, 1934, the Supreme Court upholds the lower court action, but applies it only to municipal waste, not commercial or industrial wastes.
1935 General Electric begins producing and marketing a garbage "Disposall."
1935 Rohm and Haas invents Plexiglas, a clear plastic used in headlights, lenses, windows, clocks, and jewelry.
1935 Krueger's Cream of Ale, Richmond, Virginia, produces the first can of beer.
1936 Milk products are now commonly sold in paper packaging.
1937 The DuPont Company patents nylon, the world's first synthetic fiber. Its strength, resistance to moisture and mildew, and good recovery after stretching lead to its use in stockings, electrical parts, power tools, and car accessories.
1939 Coal and wood ash make up 43% of New York City's refuse, down from 80% in 1916.
1939 Wisconsin Select beer is sold in no deposit, no return bottles, to compete with the recent introduction of beer in no return cans.
1939 Paperback books are introduced, selling for 25 cents.
1939 Birds Eye introduces the first pre cooked frozen foods, chicken fricassee and criss cross steak.
1940 Japanese conquests in Southeast Asia cut off America's supply of tin, hampering canned food production.
1941 America enters World War II. Rationing of such materials as wood and metal forces an increased reliance on synthetic materials such as plastics. Low density polyethylene film, developed during wartime, replaces cellophane as the favorite food wrap by 1960.
1942 - 45 Americans collect rubber, paper, glass, metals, and fats to help the war effort. Paper collections are so successful they overwhelm the markets by the spring of 1942.
1942 - 45 Methods and materials for wartime shipment of food make World War II "the great divide" in the packaging and storage industry.
1944 The Dow Chemical Company invents an insulation material called Styrofoam.
1945 The first American ball point pens go on sale for $12.50 each at Gimbel's in New York.
1946 Fortune magazine heralds the arrival of the "dream era...The Great American Boom is on."
1947 "Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history.... It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanityCthe law of thrift." J. Gordon Lippincott, industrial designer.
1948 American Public Health Association predicts that the garbage disposal will cause the garbage can to "ultimately follow the privy" and become an "anachronism."
1950s An improved paper cup for hot beverages is introduced. It is lined with polyethylene instead of wax.
1950s A second hydraulic system to eject garbage is added to garbage trucks.
1950s The growth of convenience foods (frozen, canned, dried, boxed, etc.) increases the amounts and changes the types of packaging thrown away.
1953 The American economy's "ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods." Chairman of President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisors
1953 Swanson introduces the first successful TV dinner: turkey, mashed potatoes, and peas.
1953 "It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have." B. Earl Puckett, Allied Stores Corp.
1954 "Never underestimate the buying power of a child under seven. He has brand loyalty and the determination to see that his parents purchase the products of his choice." Dr. Frances Horwitch ("Miss Frances" of TV's "Ding Dong School) at Chicago advertising conference.
1957 High density polyethylene (HDPE) is developed by Standard Oil of Indiana and Phillips Petroleum (now used for milk containers).
1958 The Bic Crystal Company introduces the throwaway pen.
1959 The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes a standard guide to sanitary landfilling. To guard against rodents and odors, it suggests compacting the refuse and covering it with a layer of soil each day.
1959 Philadelphia closes its reduction plant (a facility for turning organic wastes into fats, grease, and oils), the last one in the country.
1959 The first photocopier, the Xerox 914, is introduced -- 22 years after it was patented.
1960s Easy open tops (pop tops) for beverage cans are invented. Iron City Beer in Pittsburgh is the first to try the invention and its sales increase immediately.
1960s Bead molded polystyrene cups are introduced. They provide better insulation for hot drinks.
1960s The first disposable razors are sold.
1960s Bread is sold bagged in polyethylene rather than wrapped in waxed paper.
1961 Sam Yorty runs successfully for mayor of Los Angeles on a platform to end the inconvenience of separating refuse. A city ordinance eliminates the sorting of recyclables.
ca. 1963 The aluminum can for beverages is developed.
1965 The Solid Waste Disposal Act, the first federal solid waste management law, is enacted.
1968 President Lyndon Johnson commissions the National Survey of Community Solid Waste Practices, which provides the first comprehensive data on solid waste since cities began to record amounts and types of waste in the early 1900s.
1969 Seattle, Washington, institutes a new fee structure for garbage pick up. Residents pay a base rate for one to four cans and an additional fee for each additional bundle or can.
1970 The federal Resource Recovery Act amends the Solid Waste Disposal Act, and requires the federal government to issue waste disposal guidelines.
1970 The federal Clean Air Act enacted. New regulations lead to incineration shut downs.
1970 The first Earth Day. Millions of people rally nationwide on April 22.
1970 United States Environmental Protection Agency is created.
1971 Oregon passes the nation's first bottle bill. By offering cash for aluminum, glass, and plastic containers, it removes about 7% of its garbage from the waste stream.
1972 According to William Ruckelshaus, head of EPA, solid waste management is a "a fundamental ecological issue. It illustrates, perhaps more clearly than any other environmental problem, that we must change many of our traditional attitudes and habits."
1972 The federal Clean Water Act is enacted to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters.
1975 "That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is denied by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but is preached incessantly by every American television set." Robert Bellah, The Broken Covenant
1976 The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act creates the first significant role for federal government in waste management. It emphasizes recycling and conservation of energy.
1976 The Toxic Substances Control Act is passed. Before this and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act went into effect, any individual or business could legally dump any kind and amount of hazardous chemicals in landfills.
1977 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soda bottles are introduced to replace glass bottles. The plastic was first developed in England in 1941.
1978 The Supreme Court rules that garbage is protected by the Interstate Commerce Clause; therefore, one state cannot ban shipments of waste from another.
1979 EPA issues landfill criteria that prohibit open dumping.
1980 Polypropylene introduced and used for butter and margarine tubs, and for drinking straws.
1983 The space shuttle is pulled out of service to replace a window that had been severely pitted by a chip of paint from space junk.
1984 During the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, athletes, trainers, coaches, and spectators produce 6.5 million pounds of trash in 22 days, more than six pounds per person per day.
1984 Hazardous and Solid Waste Act amendments and reauthorization to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act require tougher federal regulation of landfills.
1986 Rhode Island enacts the nation's first statewide mandatory recycling law.
1986 Fresh Kills, in Staten Island, New York, becomes the largest landfill in the world.
1987 The Mobro, a Long Island garbage barge, is turned away by six states and three countries. The garbage (mostly paper) is finally incinerated in Brooklyn and the ash buried in a landfill near Islip.
1987 The Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, Tucson, begins to excavate modern landfills as if they were ancient archaeological sites. The goal is to determine exactly what is inside landfills and how much of it biodegrades.
1988 "Nobody ever has enough." Lewis Lapham, Money and Class in America
1988 The EPA estimates that more than 14,000 landfills have closed since 1978, more than 70% of those operating at that time. The landfills were full, unsafe, or the owners declined to adhere to new standards.
1989 EPA issues "An Agenda for Action," calling for an integrated solid waste management approach to solving solid waste problems, with waste prevention and recycling as its first two priorities.
1990 140 recycling laws enacted in 38 states and the District of Columbia.
1990 "Neither shortening nor lengthening product life can be a general principle. The strategy, rather, is to fine tune the durations of things, now avoiding cheap things that break too soon and clog our trash cans, now expensive objects that last too long and clog our lives." Kevin Lynch, Wasting Away
1991 EPA issues comprehensive municipal solid waste landfill criteria required by the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendment.
1991 "Our economy is such that we cannot 'afford' to take care of things: labor is expensive, time is expensive, money is expensive, but materials -- the stuff of creation -- are so cheap that we cannot afford to take care of them." Wendell Berry
1993 Municipal Solid Waste landfill criteria become effective for most landfills in the U.S.
1993 "We're reminded a hundred times a day to buy things, but we're not reminded to take care of them, repair them, reuse them, or give them away." Michael Jacobson, Center for the Study of Commercialism


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