Garbage Industry Introduces Reforms Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Responding to pressure from public health officials, municipal authorities reduced urban waste problems by implementing systems of centralized collection and disposal along with industrial recycling.

Summary of Event

In the early twentieth century, a major shift occurred in the way American cities dealt with their solid waste. The time-honored tradition of dumping in the vicinity of dwellings (and thus providing materials for future archaeologists) was replaced by municipal efforts at centralizing collection and disposal. These municipal efforts included the expansion of methods of burning garbage to reduce it and sorting garbage to find reusable or recyclable resources. Garbage industry Public health concerns;garbage Medicine;public health concerns Rubbish disposal [kw]Garbage Industry Introduces Reforms (1910’s) [kw]Reforms, Garbage Industry Introduces (1910’s) Garbage industry Public health concerns;garbage Medicine;public health concerns Rubbish disposal [g]United States;1910’s: Garbage Industry Introduces Reforms[02490] [c]Environmental issues;1910’s: Garbage Industry Introduces Reforms[02490] [c]Health and medicine;1910’s: Garbage Industry Introduces Reforms[02490] [c]Government and politics;1910’s: Garbage Industry Introduces Reforms[02490] Morse, William F.

The new approach stemmed from the fact that expanding populations were concentrating in urban areas. An important public health movement had already begun working for the establishment of housing standards and other efforts to clean up the growing and increasingly polluted and unhealthy industrial cities. Untended trash was only one of several indications of the need for new ways to protect human health in urban settings. Passage of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act (1899) was the federal government’s first step toward controlling indiscriminate dumping into the nation’s navigable waters.

Although the municipal solid waste of the time did not include disposable diapers, single-service packaging, or fast-food residues, it did contain roughly the same percentages of paper, organic waste (such as food), and miscellaneous other materials as does modern solid waste. As a result of heating with coal, each household unit accumulated approximately one ton of ash every year. In addition to ash, urban solid waste contained street sweepings, including by-products of animal transportation such as horse manure and dead animals, and household garbage.

At that time, the main distinction drawn concerning solid waste was between materials that putrefied, or “garbage,” and those that remained dry, or “trash.” Disposal of garbage was the greatest concern; dry materials were often dumped close to homes. “Refuse” was the term used for a combination of garbage and trash; the most comprehensive term, covering both refuse and construction materials, was “rubbish.”

Population growth in U.S. cities in the early twentieth century came from mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Urbanization;U.S. Rural populations were also beginning to move to urban areas in ever-increasing numbers, changing the United States from a predominantly rural society to an urban one. The high rate of national population growth notwithstanding, cities grew at a rate seven or eight times faster than rural areas.

The problems created by the accumulation of garbage were similar to others encountered by the sanitary reform movement. This epoch of U.S. history, the so-called Progressive Era, was also labeled the period of “sewer-pipe socialism.” Social reformers sought to improve housing quality, reduce crowding, and improve municipal services to reduce the unhealthy conditions of urban neighborhoods. One strategy that began to be implemented was the removal of the workplace—along with its congestion and effluents—from residential areas.

In response to the dumping of garbage and other solid waste in densely settled areas, which caused noxious by-products such as disease-carrying vermin and flies, central authorities began to assume responsibility for this environmental problem. Invoking the need to protect public health and safety, government authorities used their police power and municipal funds to solve the problems that were adversely affecting public health.

The methods of rubbish reduction used at the time included dumping and systematic combustion. Dumping was usually done in relatively remote locations, where it encouraged scavenging and reclamation of materials, especially rags, paper, and metals. Away from urban areas, rubbish was also reduced through open burning in dumps, a practice that was standard until the late twentieth century.

The idea of industrial facilities devoted to rubbish reduction came from Europe. One such facility, using an incinerator, or “cremator,” was built by the U.S. Army, and others were later built in several cities, including Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Wheeling, West Virginia; and Des Moines, Iowa. Incineration of rubbish One effort was undertaken by the Engle Sanitary and Cremation Company, Engle Sanitary and Cremation Company whose agent, William F. Morse, became a major innovator in incineration disposal. Companies began to promote a standard burning-reduction facility in which a combustible material was added to the wet garbage so that it would burn. The main intent was to reduce or dispose of waste; producing heat was secondary. The operation of such facilities required a level of technical knowledge and skill not available until the late nineteenth century.

Often, these early incinerators were abandoned because fuel costs and the facilities’ overall inefficiency made running them too expensive. Later, an incinerator known as the “destructor,” an improved version of the early cremator modified from an English model, became a success. More than one hundred of these incinerators were built, and they stayed in operation longer than the cremators had.

Another method of rubbish reduction was a European innovation that boiled animal carcasses and discarded materials to yield by-products of fat and a residuum used as fertilizer. This type of facility was adapted in various ways in the United States; the typical U.S. adaptation was a press that extracted fats for resale. These facilities were most effective in areas where a large portion of the waste was organic; consequently, most were found near cities such as Milwaukee, St. Paul, Chicago, Denver, and Cleveland. Cities were often the losers when they paid reduction facilities to take solid waste, for reduction operations were often profitable for those who ran them; in addition, the process often had a negative impact on surrounding municipal areas.

Nearly two hundred incinerators were built in cities throughout the United States in the second decade of the twentieth century. Most were simply burn facilities, and all were funded by local governments or by user fees. According to a survey of the 1880 U.S. census, at that time about 50 percent of rubbish was dumped or buried in land or water, 25 percent was disposed of through farm use, and the remaining 25 percent was disposed of by a variety of methods, of which burning represented only 1 percent. By 1913, land disposal continued to dominate, but the use of incineration had increased significantly. By the time World War I began, however, incineration had begun to decline again. Incineration remained an important disposal method, but fewer than one hundred incinerator facilities were in operation.

Another small boom in incineration came from the implementation of the “destructor” concept, an effort to secure by-products such as heat from the burn. Before incinerators began to be used, less than half of all major U.S. cities had municipal collection of garbage, but by 1913 nearly all had some system in place.


Public concerns about the dangers of improperly handled garbage motivated the search for solutions. That search gradually extended beyond the efforts of individuals to municipal authorities, a development common in environmental improvement efforts generally. Health officials had only an imperfect understanding of pathology, and disagreements existed concerning exactly how diseases are spread and the contribution of insects to the problem. Germ theory was developing, but even before exact causal relationships had been identified, common sense dictated that authorities take certain actions. To some extent, the municipal response to the garbage problem was eclipsed by the contributions of sanitary engineers, practitioners of a profession that emerged in response to the problems defined by sewer-pipe socialism. As a result of the growth of municipal presence and the work of sanitary engineers, large numbers of people could live in close proximity without fear of disease and contamination.

Whatever form their rubbish disposal took, most cities had initiated municipal waste collection programs by 1913. With such programs in place, solid waste was separated into categories, with the principal emphasis on garbage (that part of the waste that would putrefy and reduce). Individuals still separated rubbish into categories for reuse and recycling, and collectors contributed their share to the reuse of certain types of items. This system remained in place until the last quarter of the twentieth century, when sanitary landfilling procedures and new laws required that rubbish material be totally disposed of and covered every day. Garbage industry Public health concerns;garbage Medicine;public health concerns Rubbish disposal

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blumberg, Louis, and Robert Gottlieb. War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle with Garbage? Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1989. A history and sociology of the management of solid waste in the United States from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1980’s. Well documented; includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kharbanda, O. P., and E. A. Stallworthy. Waste Management: Towards a Sustainable Society. New York: Auburn House, 1990. An overview of waste management efforts around the world. Includes notes, tables, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Melosi, Martin V. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment. Rev. ed. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Emphasizes developments in garbage management during the Progressive Era and provides information critical to understanding the sanitation movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murarka, Ishwar P., ed. Solid Waste Disposal and Reuse in the United States. 2 vols. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1987. A useful reference on the production, disposal, and reuse of solid waste. Includes photographs, tables, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. 1992. Reprint. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. Summarizes the history of garbage and includes a discussion of the authors’ long-term garbage project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Royte, Elizabeth. Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. Boston: Little, Brown, 2005. Blends science, anthropology, and journalism to examine Americans’ relationship with their garbage. Follows the separate journeys of the author’s household trash, compostable matter, recyclables, and sewage to illustrate the realities of waste management.

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Categories: History