Brief History of Waste Management

7.5 ton tipper grab lorry

Managing waste has always been a challenge. Back in the days of hunter gatherers it was easy to leave waste behind and move on, but once mankind adopted farming managing waste became an important issue and in some settlements the communal burning of waste became a ritual.

Things more or less ticked along throughout the growth of civilisations; waste had to be dealt with but it was never too much of a problem. What could be re-used was generally put to some purpose, and one way or another biodegradable waste found its way back into the eco system.

The Great Stink

It was after urbanisation that waste management really became a significant problem. Spurred on by the industrial revolution, people moved from rural farming communities to what were then the small towns of London, Manchester, Glasgow and Newcastle. With open sewers that emptied directly into the Thames, waste just left in the street, and roads deep in horse manure, diseases such as cholera and typhoid were endemic and London developed a deadly miasma that culminated in the Great Stink of 1858 caused by the lethal combination of human excrement, public and industrial waste, and baking hot weather. It was thought the stink itself was the cause of disease.  The Great stink was the final straw that inspired the reform of London’s sewage system along with other waste management measures.

Rag and Bone Men

Even before the Great Stink there had been efforts to clean up the waste and the rubbish. As early as 1750 there had been calls to establish a public body to clean up London streets and thus preserve people’s health. By the late eighteenth century ‘Dust Contractors’ and ‘Rag and Bone’ men were making a profit by recycling coal ash and anything else that could be recycled. In 1850 there were over 800 Rag and Bone’ men, also called bone grubbers, who scratched a living on the streets of London, then the home to a population of over 8 million persons.

Early Municipal Waste Management

From around the middle of the nineteenth century, municipal waste management gradually assumed an increasingly important role. The Public Health Act of 1975 decreed that the public must discard their rubbish in movable containers, the original dustbins, for collection. Collection was carried out by horse pulled open removal trucks and the rubbish transported for disposal. To dispose of the rubbish incinerators were built, but they proved highly unpopular due to the smoke and ash they created.  The whole waste management operation was overseen by the Metropolitan Board of Works.


An alternative and far more popular solution to waste disposal was landfill. This was cheap, especially if old quarries and other existing holes could be used, and there was the advantage that as far as the public was concerned the rubbish was out of sight and out of mind.

Early landfill sites were not without their problems. A perfect habitat for vermin, a source of toxic products that could contaminate drinking water, and a source of methane gas caused by bacterial decomposition of waste, they left behind problems with which we are still dealing today.

Waste Management Today

Today the collection, transport, storage, treatment and disposal of all kinds of waste are governed by local, national, and international law. In the UK there is a raft of legislation to which waste management companies must adhere along with 28 different waste management permits that are required for dealing with different classifications of waste. There is also European wide legislation such as the Waste Framework Directive which is aimed at moving Europe towards being a recycling society.

We have come a long way since the days when Londoners soaked their curtains with lime chloride in a vain attempt to keep out the unimaginably dreadful smell.