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three millenia of waste management

For the past few months I have searched high and low for a book that would provide me with a comprehensive understanding of the history of waste management in relationship to the rise and decline (or perhaps more appropriately, growth and diseased death) of human societies. This book would cover the history of sanitation, from aqueducts to soap to sewers, and explain how proper waste management acted as an upper bound on city growth, with failure resulting in biblical plagues that would wipe out entire towns and set back development hundreds of years.

I came across The Big Necessity and Flushed, among others -reading the latter and adding the former to an increasingly formidable “to-read” pile- but neither had the historical context I was looking for.

I then set about to leverage my limited knowledge and the endless information available on the internets to write a blog post on the matter (if I couldn’t read it, perhaps I could write it…)

Up until the last couple hundred years, waste management amounted to nothing more than disjointed efforts — e.g., Indus Valley, Greece, Rome — with little relevance to the society’s death or survival (sure, Rome reigned supreme at the time, but I’ve seen no reason to believe that their water works were the key to, rather than the the product of, this greatness).

My hypothesis, of course, is not that waste management leads to glory, but that waste management acts as an upper bound on the growth of human societies; at some point, a city’s ability to support their population without falling prey to death and disease depends on waste management. As a further clarification, that is not to say that through adequate waste management a city can avoid the possibility of disease altogether: plagues have many vectors by which they can decimate a population, waste management will not eliminate them all.

This hypothesis jives with the lack of waste management innovation for most of the history of mankind. Looking at the population chart graphic, it’s striking just how flat the world population was up until ~1500 – ~1800.

Now, world population growth does not necessarily mean city growth; for a city growth proxy, I took the average of the historical estimates for the top two most populous cities at various points in history:

100 AD Rome / Luoyang (Honan), China: 435,000
1000 AD Cordova, Spain / Kaifeng, China: 425,000
1500 AD Beijing, China / Vijayanagar, India: 586,000
1800 AD Beijing, China / London, United Kingdom: 980,500
1900 AD London, United Kingdom / New York, United States: 5,361,000
1950 AD New York, United States / London, United Kingdom: 10,661,500

Currently, Tokyo and Mexico City are Nos. 1 and 2, averaging ~23,000,000.

In this context, it should be no surprise that there was little development in waste management until the 19th century. Little changed in terms of the demands placed on waste management, and so the history of waste management up until the 19th century is nothing more than series of blips, for the most part.

That is not to deny that some societies appreciated the value and convenience of fresh and streaming water in a central location, however, which sometimes also involved proper waste management.

Water works got an early start, with the the Harappan constructing water systems in the Indus Valley in the third millenium BC. Everyone within the town walls -not just the elite- had running water and indoor plumbing.

Outside of the Romans, there would be little improvement over this flash of brilliance until the 19th century (~4500 years). In the mean time, the Persians developed qanats (like aqueducts, but for agriculture); a Minoan ruler built a luxurious castle in Crete with running water and primitive toilet; and finally the Greeks began capitalizing on aqueducts in the 4th century, setting the stage for the Romans.

The Romans’ passion for plumbing grew out of a greater love for baths. The city’s plumbers utilized lead (in place of terracotta and other materials) to construct the pipes of the aqueducts, which were built to provide a continuous flow of water to foundations and the baths.

In a trend that continues even up through the 19th century, waste management systems were not created to deal with health issues. Convenience and luxury bear most of the credit for the innovations that did take place. The science of sanitation simply did not exist.

Now I must take a moment to talk about the plagues that struck some of the world’s greatest cities before 1800. First, before the Black Death struck down ~400 million in the 14th century (with additional waves sweeping Europe and elsewhere for hundreds of years), the bubonic plague decimated the emperor Justinian’s Byzantine empire in 541-542 AD. In both cases, it appears disease spread was spread through fleas and rats, which many speculate came to their new homes free-riding on merchant ships.

These plagues may have been the first large-scale tests of waste management. Would a 21st century sewage system have saved any of these cities? I’m no expert, but surely the plague would still have made an appearance. The effects, however, would likely have been far less devastating with the appropriate disposal of diseased bodies and waste.

For instance, one of the few places with plumbing, Canterbury monastery, escaped unscathed during the darkest days of the plague in London.

But still, the science of sanitation remained a mystery, and no lessons were learned form the terrible episodes.

The waste management innovations that did eventually emerge were not thoughtful responses to newfound health risks, but responses to superficial concerns.

In the 1800s in England, water closets (think toilets) were popular luxury items amongst the have’s. These water closets should not be confused with advances in waste management. Quite the contrary, as the water closets grew more popular, more waste emptied into the rivers.

(Fun fact from Flushed: sewers originally only meant waterways for drainage, it was only after they became deluged in feces that the word took its modern meaning.)

In this same period, cholera devestated London, and England’s mortality rate rose close to 50%,.

Yet if a plague devestating the entire citycouldn’t incite a change in waste management, infants dying of dirty water certainly wouldn’t do trick. It would take the “Great Stink” of the summer of 1858, which saw the Thames’ stench drive Londoners out of the city and, more impressively, drive the Houses of Parliament, which sit on the Thames, to act.

Dead babies were a problem, putrid stench was unacceptable.

Parliament empowered Joseph William Bazalgette, a civil engineer, to construct a sewage network. Bazalgette’s system survives today, and successfully ended London’s woes, even making the Thames fishable after decades of dead, diseased water.

At the same time, from 1840 to 1870, the number of communities with water works increased from 50 to 240. Shortly thereafter, the British OK’d public water closets, and inventors brought to bear the innovations that would become the world’s modern toilets.

And so the stench of feces set in motion the development of the modern sewer system and the principles of separating the water that goes in from the stuff that comes out.

But just in case you thought that 20th century innovations in waste management would be rooted in medical knowledge, it would take a powerful Boston politico stepping in poop while running around Quincy before the cesspool known as Boston Harbor would be cleaned up in the 1980s.

And here we are, 4600 years after the Indus Valley civilization set a standard for indoor plumbing that was largely ignored up until the late 19th century. While I am troubled that we still haven’t guaranteed this basic standard to every man, woman, and child alive today, I am struck by the remarkable progress we have made in the past 150 years, as well as disappointed how small of a role understanding of health risks played in the creation of the waste systems that could have been created hundred of years earlier.

I’m not sure what exactly to take away from the history of waste management, but it is both troubling and fascinating nonetheless.


Filed under: General Welfare, Health

2 Responses

  1. Pete says:

    glad i finally read the whole post. very interesting. I think you certainly make a good point that a comprehensive history of waste management would be a worthwhile study

  2. Thorsten says:

    This is a very interesting issue. Working in waste management myself, I am very interested in historic development of waste management. It is astounding what society after 3000 years of waste handling still has not learned. The difficulty in researching waste management history is that it is very hard to find the relevant sources.

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