“Reduce, reuse, recycle” may be a new phrase, but it isn’t a new idea. Before the advent of mechanized manufacturing, the vast majority of people had a lot less stuff, because the labor requirements made things much more expensive — there’s your reduction. Similarly, you didn’t throw things out the moment they got worn down or stained; you re-used them, as we saw with last year’s discussion of clothing and hand-me-downs or secondhand sales.
Not in the modern sense, of course. There were no special bins to collect paper or glass or metal so they could be carted off to a public facility for industrial recycling. But some kinds of trash were too valuable to merely throw out. Clothing no longer fit to be worn could be turned into paper; night soil got carted away for use as fertilizer. Poor children in pre-modern London earned a few coins by picking dog turds and pigeon dung out of the street and selling them to “pure” dealers who used the material in tanning leather. You can grind animal bones into bone meal, employ broken potsherds as ostraca, and feed your pigs on scraps of food not fit for human consumption.
These days we have the capacity to take it even further. Not just old paper made into new paper, or old aluminum cans made into new aluminum cans; you can buy shoes made from recycled plastic bottles, or make insulation out of old blue jeans. With the rise of 3D printing, the science-fictional idea that you have a household appliance make things for you and then chuck them into its “matter recycler” to be broken down and crafted into something new is moving closer to reality.
Not everything can be recycled, though, and sooner or later things reach the end of their usefulness. Then society has to figure out what to do with them.
The answer boils down to “chuck it somewhere.” In an archaeological context, this is known as a midden, which can be either a hole filled with or a mound built from refuse. Archaeologists love middens, not because we love trash for its own sake, but because a midden is a dense accumulation of biological materials (bones, shells, wood, seeds, and more) and human artifacts — kind of an all-you-eat buffet for data. Of course it’s been removed from its original context, which makes it not the perfect source of information . . . but still, you can learn a lot from people’s trash.
From a societal standpoint, unfortunately, the problem is that trash piles up. Quite literally: in areas where people ate a lot of shellfish, you have entire geographical features that are actually shell mounds, millions upon millions of discarded shells, which depending on the region and time period can be as much as a kilometer in length. And if you’re familiar with all the place-names in the Near East that begin with the word “Tell” or “Tel”? You’re talking about trash. Human habitation over a long period of time can build up layers of refuse and dirt, raising the street level — the streets of Roman London were as much as seven meters below the modern city — to the point where a settlement that wasn’t originally on a hill winds up creating a hill underneath itself.
This is part of the reason for the modern recycling push. Some of it is driven by wanting to reduce our consumption of fresh materials, but some of it is the sheer inconceivable volume of the stuff we use. We can’t even rely on the organic parts to rot away; the weight of a trash dump can create an anaerobic environment for the interior, perfectly preserving what’s buried in the middle. Future archaeologists may love us for that, but they’re not really the ones whose needs we should be prioritizing. Especially not when some of our trash is winding up in places like the ocean, creating things like the Great Pacific garbage patch, with countless negative effects on the health of the environment.
Recycling isn’t the only option for dealing with a growing volume of trash. You can also compact it — making no change to the quantity of trash, but at least reducing the amount of space it takes up. This can operate on any scale from the industrial (e.g. a car crusher) down to a household compactor. It can also work in conjunction with recycling efforts, compacting things like plastic bottle for more efficient transport to the recycling facility.
Or you can burn some of your trash. In simple form this is a very old concept; people might use waste paper as tinder for a fire, or broken furniture as fuel. Incineration on a large scale, though, got rolling in the late nineteenth century. It’s never caught on much in the United States, because we have so much land we can afford to give large quantities of it over to dumping. But in places like Japan, where land is more scarce, people have long been in the habit of sorting out their burnable trash.
Which isn’t without health and environmental consequences. If you’re not careful with your sorting, you wind up burning some very toxic things, which is bad not only for the incineration workers but nearby residents as well. We’ve gotten better about filtering the output, too, but the leftover ash still requires its own disposal, often in a special toxic waste dump. On the other hand, some northern European countries have been building incinerators that use the process to generate heat and power — turning trash into a source of energy.
One way or another, trash is not going to stop being a problem any time soon. And, just like anything else, it can be an interesting worldbuilding detail. Every person I know who’s lived in Japan has a story about the old neighborhood grandma yelling at them because they’ve improperly sorted their trash into paper, plastic, PET bottles, aluminum cans, styrofoam, glass, food waste, burnable, and so forth, while tells offer a great opportunity for (literally) buried secrets. Your narrative doesn’t have to be post-apocalyptic for the refuse of daily life to play a role in the story.