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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Long History of Garbage (p. 26)

From chapter "Garbage"

As we look into the long history of garbage, we can see a number of different trends; trends that we can also see in civilization at large. First is increasing scale. Civilizations tend to increase scale as a matter of course— if those in power have a problem, there’s a good chance the solution involves making something bigger, or making more of things.

A second trend is increasingly complex technology. The earliest recorded trash was comprised of things like wood ash, organic waste, and rags. But technological “progress” has brought us a refuse stream that includes many different kinds of metal and alloys, toxic byproducts of manufacturing, radioactive waste, and thousands of different kinds of plastics and polymers.

A third trend is decreasing community autonomy and control over garbage. This is very much a result of the first two trends. Denser and more wasteful populations, especially urban populations, made it increasingly difficult for communities to cope with their own waste locally. And as new industrial technology produced new kinds of waste, it became impossible for small communities to maintain the infrastructure necessary to deal effectively with that waste. Larger and more complicated waste management systems meant that dealing with rubbish was no longer a community or household activity—it was the specialized domain of technical experts and engineers. As a result, the ability to make decisions about waste was often lost by communities.

To a person in power, all of these trends are markers of progress. More production means more garbage, and more profit and power. More technology means more things to make and sell, and that means more profit and power. And control over garbage also means more profit and power. (And vice versa; poor neighborhoods are a favored location for incinerators and other polluting and unpleasant waste management facilities.) This last point may be a difficult one for us to understand, because of our place in history during a period of immense wastefulness, in which garbage has no value. But as we shall see, the value of garbage was something our ancestors understood well, and any descendents we have will come to understand it as well.


If you have an object that you don’t want or find useful, you have a few general options. You can store it until later, in the hope that you or someone else might find it useful then. You can give it, trade it, or sell it to someone else who does find it useful. You can get rid of it by sending it away so it isn’t a problem (for you) anymore. You can try to break it down into smaller parts that are more useful or easier to deal with. Conversely, you can try to combine it with something else to produce something that is more useful or easier to deal with. Historically, strategies for dealing with garbage have been combinations of these basic acts.


Garbage wasn’t really an issue for human beings until the advent of cities. Prior to cities and civilization any trash produced by humans was either biodegradable and beneficial to the land (like shit or food scraps) or non-biodegradable but inert and harmless (like pottery). In either case, it was small in quantity.

When the first cities were built, garbage was still mostly harmless in nature. But the density of cities, their growing populations, and the large quantities of materials they brought in made the accumulation of garbage a problem. Instead of spreading small amounts of waste over large areas with a diversity of scavenging species above and below the soil, urban humans were now accumulating large amounts of waste in tight spaces where most non-human species had been wiped out. Piles of decomposing organic matter offered a wonderful environment for generalized scavengers like rats, flies, and cockroaches, who would accompany civilized humans as they spread around the world. The dense populations of humans and domestic animals allowed for the incubation of plagues and infections, many of which were communicated by those rats and insects.

While germ theory and public sanitation did not exist until much later, the residents of early cities would sometimes realize that the garbage was making people sick, although they would attribute this to gases emitted by them. Certainly the garbage smelled bad, and looked unattractive in the streets.

So the question became; what to do with all this garbage?