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History of Waste Management

As the population of the planet grows and is concentrated more and more into urban areas, Waste management becomes an increasingly crucial part of a properly functioning society. For health reasons and quality of life, the effective disposal of waste, both organic and manufactured, must be a municipal priority. However, the demands of waste management have changed over time.

For many centuries of human existence the rural nature of human life and the fact that communities were sparse, with insignificant exploitation of natural resources meant that waste, such as human organic waste and the ashes from fire, were simply re-absorbed back into the natural environment. It was when civilizations began congregating in towns and cities that waste management became an issue.

The Ancient Greeks were the first society of which there is recorded evidence of a concerted system of waste management. Archaeological evidence suggests that they had communal dumps for biodegradable waste at a minimum distance from the city limits.

In England, the slow growth of towns meant that the first official ordnance regarded waste management was not issued until the end of the fourteenth century, when the dumping of waste into waterways that provided drinking water was prohibited.

Through the seventeenth century, in Europe and America, concerted waste management involved both collection and, to a great extent, recycling. Coal ash, the waste from domestic heating fires was sieved and made available for re-use. At the end of the century, a mill in America produced the first paper made from recycled fibres, a process that continued and was refined over the coming centuries.

The industrial revolution of the eighteenth century caused a huge increase in urban populations. This dense gathering of people meant that waste issues increased exponentially. At the start of this urban growth, cities were renowned for the dirt and filth that coated the streets and infected the waterways. Soon, however, municipal authorise realised that the health of the workforce was suffering and instituted sewerage systems.

At the start of the twentieth century, the increase of manufactured produce that was not biodegradable saw a shift to the use of incinerators to get rid of waste. While this is still used as a method of waste management, concerns over the environmental effect of burning such material saw a concurrent rise in landfills, often in swamp land.

Today, as the world population continues to increase and there is more pressure on land, there is a booming trade in the disposal of human waste, with waste being exported from developed countries to those in the developing world for disposal. The challenge is to find an environmentally sensitive waste disposal method for an increasingly dense urban population in the future.

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