INFOGRAPHIC: Don’t Dump That! A Timeline History of Waste Disposal in the United States

Timeline of Waste Disposal

As long as humans have gathered together in settlements, there have been garbage dumps – and the associated problems of smell, disease, and air/water pollution. For thousands of years, we’ve struggled with the challenge of managing waste, including household garbage, industrial waste, hazardous waste, and medical waste. Governments in the United States began taking a role in waste disposal surprisingly early with mixed results:

  • 1654 – New Amsterdam (now New York City) made it illegal to throw waste into the street. Pedestrians rejoiced!
  • 1834 – Charleston, WV prohibited hunters from killing vultures because the birds helped consume the city’s garbage.
  • 1872-1932 – Worcester, MA used pigs to consume the city’s garbage. At one point, the city’s “piggery” employed 8,000 swine who consumed over 10 tons of garbage daily.

Until recently, waste generators and local authorities made few distinctions between household, industrial, animal, hazardous, and medical wastes. By the 1960s, however, public health experts began to sound the alarm about the implications of improper waste disposal and the necessity of individualized disposal protocols for specific types of waste. By the 1980s, public attention turned to the dangers of improper disposal of “regulated medical waste” (RMW). Currently, both federal and state regulatory agencies set strict guidelines for the handling, transportation, tracking, and disposal of medical waste.

Here’s how we got from there to here.

Pre-1960s – Waste was usually burned on site in barrels or pits. Waste sent to landfills was likely to be dumped in “open burn landfills.

1963 – The National Conference on Solid Waste Research held in Chicago issued a call for a national effort to overhaul solid waste management in the US. The conference warned that improper waste management was a danger to public health.

1965 – Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA). It was the first national regulation of solid waste disposal.

1970 – Congress passed the Federal Resource Recovery Act. It amended SWDA and required the federal government to set national guidelines for waste disposal.

1976 – Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) “to address the increasing problems the nation faced from our growing volume of municipal and industrial waste.” The act banned all open dumping of waste. RCRA amended SWADA and added a set of national goals for conservation, human and environmental protection, and environmentally-sound waste disposal. These were the first regulations concerning the handling and disposal of hazardous wastes.

1976 – RCRA Subtitle C covered management and disposal of hazardous waste. Subtitle C established the “cradle to grave” standard that requires the control and tracking hazardous wastes from the time they’re generated until ultimate disposal.

1976 – Congress passed Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate “production, importation, use, and disposal of specific chemicals including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)asbestos, radon and lead-based paint.” Items excluded from TSCA included “food, drugs, cosmetics, and pesticides.

1985 – Congress strengthened RCRA when it passed the Federal Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA). The amendments focused on “waste minimization and phasing out land disposal of hazardous waste as well as corrective action for releases.”

1986 – Fresh Kills, a landfill on Staten Island, opened. At 2200 acres, it was one of the world’s largest landfills.

1988 – Medical waste from the Fresh Kills landfill began washing up on nearby beaches, littering them with “syringes, hospital waste, and blood vials.”  The incident was referred to as the “Syringe Tide.”

1988 – Congress passed the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 (MWTA) in response to the Syringe Tide. The MWTA set guidelines for the segregation, storage, tracking, and disposal of regulated medical waste. It set penalties ranging from fines to prison time for illegal dumping of biohazardous medical waste, including “body tissues, blood wastes, and other contaminated biological materials.”  It was a voluntary program.

1991 – MWTA expired, and states were responsible for passing their own laws regarding regulated medical waste storage, transportation, tracking, and disposal. The EPA issued model guidelines that many states adopted.

1997 – The EPA released rules to set standards for hospital/medical/infectious waste incinerators. Before 1997, more than 90% of potentially dangerous medical waste was burned in hospital and community incinerators.

2008 – New Jersey beaches closed for four days after a dentist dumped “260 needles, 180 cotton swabs and several capsules that held filling material” into the Atlantic Ocean and the waste washed up on shore.

2012 – EPA issued a recommendation that pharmaceuticals collected during Drug TakeBack events be incinerated. The agency noted that incineration helps “address both environmental and diversion concerns.”

2018 – Beaches in New York closed for two days after illegally dumped medical waste littered the area.

2018 – Improper (and illegal) medical waste disposal is an international concern. Hong Kong, for example, has problems with used syringes and expired medications washing up on beaches.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from relying on pigs and vultures for waste disposal and everyday dumping of toxic wastes in communities.

People recognize the dangers of improper disposal of regulated medical waste and pharmaceutical waste. They’ve seen the effect lax disposal has on beaches, communities, and air/water quality. Communities demanded action, and the government responded. Citizens, governments, waste generators, and medical waste disposal providers now work together to develop strategies and technologies that help keep our communities safer and healthier.

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