How We Reached Rubbish Bin Rental – The Industrial Revolution and the Proliferation of Packaging
Our rubbish bin is something we rarely consider unless it gets too full, either because we forgot to put it out for collection last week or a sudden surge in waste – renovations, a big declutter, a successful house party – has stretched us beyond our means of disposal. But times like these, while frustrating, can also be an opportunity to think about how we reached the point where we have so much to throw away. Lift the lid of your rubbish or recycling bin, and you probably won’t be surprised to see that the majority of what we put out for collection each week is packaging. Packaging is so ever-present in vast quantities that, much like rubbish disposal, we rarely stop to think about it. But of course, it wasn’t always there.
Before the Industrial Revolution, rubbish, like most other man-made things, looked quite different. Because food was difficult to preserve and normally eaten close to where it was produced, there was little need to package it. Food still required basic containers, but these had to be crafted out of natural materials, such as bamboo, leaves, animal skins or shells. Trash was mostly made up of organic material leftover from staying fed and keeping warm, such as bones and vegetable matter, wood and ash, and this could either be given to animals as feed or buried and allowed to biodegrade.
As technology progressed, ceramics, metals and even kinds of paper were available to use as containers for food and other everyday necessities. Making these things, however, was expensive and time-consuming – Ancient rubbish dumps contain only small amounts of broken tools or pottery, indicating that storage items and everyday implements were built to be reused and rarely thrown away.
The fact that rubbish was so different meant that the waste disposal challenges of everyday life also differed from today, and this was still the case when the Industrial Revolution had already begun. Waste was almost entirely organic and unlike modern rubbish had little trouble decomposing – the problem instead was sanitation. In Washington, D.C. in the 1860s, dumping rubbish and slop into the streets was commonplace, and cockroach infestations were the norm in most buildings, including The White House. Pigs were allowed to roam freely and consume rubbish in many cities, but then of course produced unsanitary waste themselves. As we discussed in our brief history of waste collection, modern rubbish collection systems and the first rubbish bins began tackling this problem. But the expense and the labour intensiveness of packaging and storing food and other everyday necessities remained inconvenient as always.
Eventually, however, the manufacturing innovations of the Industrial Revolution began to be brought to bear on packaging. In the first half of the 19th Century, tin became available as a cheap material for food packaging and preservation once the canning process was developed. Paper, which had previously been made from parchment and rags and was therefore an expensive and limited resource, began to be produced from wood pulp, and became cost-effective to use as packaging.
The ability to package and distribute food more cheaply with this new technology created a new problem for buyers and consumers – the source and quality of products, which now came concealed in packaging and weren’t produced locally, became harder to discern. Low quality, counterfeit products posing as the original became more and more commonplace, and businesses began to look for ways to make their product visually distinguishable from fakes. As a result, packaging began to take on a more decorated and sophisticated form. In 1916, Coca Cola decided that a normally shaped bottle made their brand too easy to confuse with counterfeit Coke makers. They consulted with several glass manufacturing companies, eventually putting out the famous contour-shaped bottle.
With the development of plastics in various forms in the 20th Century, packaging became even more convenient, decorative and cheap. In 1928, the DuPont Cellophane Company created cellophane, which was soon widely using as transparent wrapping for food and other products, and polystyrene began being manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company in 1930. Milk and bread began being sold in paper packaging in the first half of the 20th Century, but by the 1960s, polyethylene could be used for both milk containers and bread bags. Coal and wood ash still made up 80% of New York’s rubbish in 1916; by 1939, it only made up 43%. Supermarkets, which offered goods at significantly lower prices and became overwhelmingly popular after The Great Depression, also helped ensure that packaging, rather than the shopkeepers who had wrapped and weighed food for customers in the early part of the 19th Century, became instrumental to selling. Disposable plastic packaging was light, cheap, and could be disposed of rather than cleaned, and so unsurprisingly it tended to win out in the eyes of shoppers.
By the 1970s, though, people were becoming aware that plastic packaging, while making everyday life easier, was creating new kinds of ecological problems. Environmental regulations began to appear, although recycling schemes were slow to develop. As a result of technological advances, accessing and keeping everyday necessities has become far less laborious than it was for people a century ago. But, as the state of our bins attests, we are still working out how to deal with this problem today, and along with advances in recycling and biodegradable plastics, consumer behaviour also needs to continue to change.
If you have a more immediate rubbish problem that needs resolving, however, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Junk2Go. Rest assured that we are committed to environmentally responsible waste collection – up to 70% of our collected items are recycled or repurposed. Call 0800 586 524 today.