Our prehistoric ancestors had numerous troubles in their lives, most of which are not dealt with in the modern world. However, one thing that certainly wasn’t on the typical caveman’s agenda was waste management. There were no trash bins or even waste beyond what was naturally created throughout the course of everyday life. In this way, Mother Nature was the ultimate recycler and disposer.
Today, however, garbage is very much a part of our lives. While we still have an abundance of the natural kind, we now have a number of substances that Mother Nature wasn’t prepared to deal with during the human lifecycle. The human population is also vastly greater, which translates to much, much more waste. Since the advent of agriculture, man has had to devise clever ways to get rid of stuff that couldn’t be reused; one of the most successful ways this has been done throughout history is through the use of landfills.
Prior to modern waste management facilities, landfills were simply places on the outskirts of populated areas where people dumped their garbage. Some enterprising citizens even burned their garbage, unaware of the disastrous effects this had on the surrounding air. However, people began to realize that large piles of garbage often attracted certain unsavory elements, such as rats, rodents, and disease. Further, there were signs that garbage piles were contaminating the groundwater. As a result, the initial push for modern landfills became a public health concern.
Some sources credit the British with inventing the modern landfill in 1920, while others claim there was a working landfill in Illinois as early as 1904. Still others say the Fresno Sanitary Landfill (FSL), which opened in 1936, was the birth of the sanitary landfill, as it is known today. Rather than simply being a hole in the ground, as most early landfills were, the FSL employed certain techniques, including the “trench” method and “compaction,” which ensured the pile was as sanitary as possible. Having learned from past mistakes, the FSL covered the refuse with soil on a daily basis to minimize rodents and debris.
The FSL’s techniques revolutionized the way that landfills operated, as landfill engineers worked to develop more sanitary methods to dispose of waste. After World War II, the US Army Corps of Engineers began building sanitary landfills in the form of the FSL for the disposal of military waste. By 1960, about one hundred American cities had sanitary landfills. In 1976, the government passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which served to “protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal”. Under the RCRA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was tasked with ensuring that all landfills met a certain standard of sanitation.
A far cry from days of old, the modern landfill is quite complex. Modern facilities must be built in suitable geological areas kept well away from faults, wetlands, and flood plains. Landfills must be constructed of sturdy lining materials to prevent groundwater contamination. Further, toxicity must be monitored daily, and waste must be compacted and covered with several inches of cover material to reduce odor and control rodents. Once they are no longer operational, landfills are also required to meet a number of closure requirements.
Modern landfill sites are a far cry from those first dug on the outskirts of towns. With an ever-growing human population, waste management will surely continue to be an area well worth researching in order to improve efficiency and minimize ecological harm.
Marion Butler is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to landfill sites, Marion is interested in eco-conscious living, green energy, environmental studies, plastic tanks, reservoirs, alternative fuel and other related areas.