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Origins of Waste Technology

As with most human endeavors, one could find origins of waste technology back in the earliest recorded history.  Disposal of waste or otherwise unwanted material has been like a thorn in humankind's side for thousands of years.  Pollution of lakes and other water sources from indiscriminate disposal worried Roman era politicians, ediles and writers.  Even before the lack of personal hygiene became associated with disease, people allocated specific areas of land under their control to the disposal of rotting carcasses and other household waste.  The real impetus for a coordinated effort addressing the disposal of waste was given by the Industrial Revolution and its concomitant proliferation of waste material on a scale never before known. Until then, though cities may have experienced minor crises, people had been able to cope with the disposal of excess waste by merely disposing of it further into the countryside and more densely into rivers.  In those long bygone days, Nature was not as pristine as some modern romantics would have us believe. 

In the second half of the 19th century, the sheer volume of waste products  began to overwhelm people's capacity to collect, transport and dump them, resulting in some rather stomach-turning  environmental pollution and heart-wrenching exploitation of human misery.  The topic was not  frequently favored in polite conversations and its apparent hopelessness was not likely to induce much argumentation.  What was left over after use of most products was called "dust" or "trash", or more diplomatically, "refuse", with most people believing that the less said about it, the better.

Ever since, mankind has been on an endless treadmill, trying to balance the mounting and apparently insoluble problem of waste disposal. Until the middle of the last century, scavenging and the rights to it remained one of the most prevalent solutions.  People would throw their stuff out in the dumps, and their less fortunate countrymen would retrieve a good part of it, for a fee of course, allowing those in control of the dust mounds or dumps to become rich in the process.  Incineration and the production of energy from it were considered high-tech but less favored alternatives, in part because of the cost. Later in that century,  in part because of its polluting side-effects, simple incineration became low-tech and gave way to more sophisticated pyrotechnical treatment . Burial by landfill gradually became the "next best" solution, until available sites became scarce and leaching of noxious effluents into the water table near the burial sites interfered with the scalability of the solution. 

A concerted effort to find more rational alternatives to all of these ad-hoc measures has come into being during the last 30 years or so. Today, though the old solutions, from scavenging to burial, are still widely used throughout the world, there is an increasing awareness of the need and the availability of far more effective solutions and the economic opportunities surrounding them. In the more affluent parts of the world, scavenging, and the sometimes criminal activities surrounding it, are hopefully on the way out. Incineration is marginally cost-effective. Burial is increasingly unpopular.

Mores too have changed.  Smells, for instance, that could have been considered "manly", "honest" and even "democratic" are now considered hick, rude and backward.  Perspiration and other male or female body odors, tobacco smoke, disinfectants,  industrial and hospital smells and other disagreeable effluvia, once associated with hard work, money, nature and even the preservation of health are now falling into the "taboo" category.  Some have become the main agents of change for an entire industry generating billions of dollars, euros, or yens in income and millions of jobs for those engaged in providing products and services to combat them.  

The idea that there was some discrete technology required in the management of it did not become popularly  accepted until the accumulation of refuse in close proximity to areas of human habitation made it an intolerable problem.  Some might say that society, at least in some countries, has become sissified and now vocally objects to various facts of life which earlier generations might not have found objectionable enough to mention.  In point of fact, it is probably the economics of waste disposal that have brought about this change of heart. Managing waste is now a multi-billion dollar industry.

The economics of waste disposal have gone far beyond the actual physical or mechanical disposition of the waste material itself.   The ugly reminders of an unkinder and ungentler era  have become markers by which the quality of life in a specific geographical area is frequently judged when compared to that in another area.  NIMBY attitudes among voters drive politics, health standards are harnessed to help exclude many locations from candidacy as refuse repositories, coloring the value of real estate in general and gradually forcing mankind to become more efficient in the disposition of all the things they discard as waste. In turn, the topic has seeped into more acceptable areas of human discourse and given the topic a new respectability and a higher priority.

Indeed, the notion that we need to develop techniques and, in time, a science for the "management of waste products" is now widely accepted in the scientific and business communities.  At any rate, the publicity given by these communities to a formerly somewhat "off-limits" subject has risen exponentially. At last count, there were more than 60 websites authored in the U.S. and  concerned with Waste Technology on one popular Internet search site alone, and hundreds more scattered among other search engines.  Interest in the subject, virtually unknown among people not directly engaged in the management of waste thirty years ago, has, along with other revolutions in social and industrial contexts, blossomed with population growth and contributed to the development of an awareness among the people at large of the importance of environmental and ecological issues.

Predictably, governments and venture capitalists have been willing to invest  huge sums in environmental cleanup activities.  Today,  an advanced "Waste Technology" and a respected "Waste Management Science" touch nearly every sector of human activity where waste is produced.  Like with most  issues whose existence has been ignored or minimized by the general public in decades and centuries past, resistance to sound disposal, recycling and conservation practices has ebbed slowly, at first in centers of high population density and in communities where large-scale agricultural and forestry activities underpin the economy.  Not surprisingly, resistance to such practices lasts longest in those urban and rural communities with the weakest economies and the lowest health and educational standards.

Lacking revenues, poor communities, unless helped by outside forces, remain mired in a vicious circle of ignorance and denial of the problem. Hope exists this situation will not forever endure, and that hope arises in large part from the emergence of the Internet.  Not everyone has a computer yet but television antennas abound even in the "favelas" of Brazil and the shantytowns of Africa.  The slums of the industrialized world sport them ubiquitously.  These antennas' harvest of information may be of dubious educational value sometimes but inevitably bring into the poorest and most backward households knowledge of the existence and opportunities of this new, revolutionary medium.  This has in turn created,  even among the most disadvantaged, a growing awareness of a higher standard for measuring the quality of life. Even the poorest  districts become exposed to the power of the Internet and to the keys to the store of knowledge it contains.  Hygiene ranks high among the elements of such standard, and Waste Technology has emerged as a leading standard bearer. 

Some of the articles to be published on this page will address the problem of waste management from the differing standpoints of affluent and non-affluent communities but cultural or socio-economic factors will not be the only filters through which the problem will be addressed.

DISCA sm  will, from time to time, publish on this page articles of interest in the field of waste technology and management.  You are invited to submit your proposed article for publication on the understanding that you agree that your submittal may be deemed to be your representation that the material submitted may be published free of charge and is not subject to any reservation of rights you or anyone else may have under the laws of any country applicable to intellectual property, and that you will hold us harmless from any claim based on the violation of any such rights, if your article is selected for publication. 

 

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