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Ten Squeaky-Clean Tidbits about Trash

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

How much do you know about trash? If you are anything like us, the answer is… not very much. You know enough to throw it away, right? We hope. And maybe you are thoughtful enough to recycle some things for the good of the planet, too. Simple stuff, really! When you get done with something, you throw it into the appropriate bin or recycling container, and you go along on your merry way. What’s there to think about?

Honestly, we thought the same way until we compiled this list. But as it turns out, trash has a fascinating history and makes up a very unique part of civilized society. Both down through the ages and into the modern era, a lot of very smart people have spent a lot of time thinking about trash, garbage collection, sanitation, and how it all relates to public health. And in this list, we’ll take a dumpster dive into that world! Here are ten tidbits about trash that you never thought you’d need to know—but as you read through them, you’ll be amazed at how much there is to it!

Related: 10 Lies You Believe About Plastic Recycling

10 The Work of the Zabbaleen

The Zabaleen: Cairo’s Garbage Collectors (Part 1)

In Cairo, Egypt, there is a group of people who pick up garbage, sort it, make sure it all gets disposed of in the right place, and eke out a very small profit to keep the city running.

Known as the “Zabbaleen,” these informal garbage pickers are a group of Coptic Christians who are said to be between 50,000 and 100,000 in number. They aren’t city employees, but for generations now, they’ve been collecting the trash of the city and making a meager but sustainable existence by getting rid of it. The rest of Cairo rests easy knowing that the Zabbaleen are there to clean things up when it’s time to toss your garbage.

Typically, the Zabbaleen drive in motorized or push-powered carts around the city and pick up any garbage bags and other trash that they find lying on the street or on the sidewalk outside doorstops. They carry it back to their small neighborhood communities, where they break it down, separate various forms of trash, and sort it all out for recycling or other disposal.

Scientists have studied the Zabbaleen for years and have figured out that their recycling system is one of the most efficient in the world. Their careful hand-picking results in as much as 80% of the trash they collect being turned into recycling. That’s an astounding success rate for a small group of people who have been keeping Cairo clean for generations. [1]

9 Bag It and Tag It!

How plastic bags were supposed to help the planet – BBC News

It would seem that the garbage bag itself has been around for a long time. Even if not by name or specific use, the idea of having a bag in which you throw all your garbage and then toss it into the dump or landfill seems obvious, right? But it wasn’t! Not until the 1950s, at least. And even then, garbage bags, as they were first invented, were only meant for commercial and hospital use in order to take care of and process more waste faster.

In 1950, a Canadian inventor who lived in Winnipeg named Harry Wasylyk got together with a fellow tinkerer named Larry Hansen—also a Canadian, but from Ontario. The two came up with what proved to be a great idea: the garbage bag. At first, they played around with paper garbage bags. Eventually, though, they settled on making a disposable green polyethylene garbage bag meant for commercial use.

And that’s the other thing: We really mean “commercial” use. Wasylyk and Hansen first only sold their garbage bags to Winnipeg Hospital through the 1950s before figuring out that it might be worthwhile to tap the much larger domestic market. And since they’d already scrapped the paper bags—which didn’t exactly keep in all the gooey liquids that sometimes seeped through—the plastic bags proved to be an immediate hit at home.

Amazingly, a third Canadian garbage bag inventor was also tinkering with the idea at the time. A Toronto man named Frank Plomp simultaneously invented his own plastic garbage bag in 1950 as well. It didn’t have the widespread, immediate use that the bag from Wasylyk and Hansen did, though. So Plomp is simply relegated to the garbage pile of history…[2]

8 The Dempster Dumpster


For centuries, wagons were used to haul away solid waste. It was effective for its time but also smelly, messy, and slow. By the late 19th century, people started to think about how that work could possibly be made more efficient. An English company invented a steam motor tip-car in 1897 that was meant specifically for the collection of trash from homes around the United Kingdom.

That worked for a while, but as the calendar turned to the 20th century, more efficiency was needed. By the 1920s, open-topped trash trucks were commonplace throughout the United States and Europe. There was a problem, though: the waste smelled like, well, waste as the trucks roamed through the city. And it was very common for large piles of garbage to fall out while the truck was bumping along the road. Gross!

By the late 1920s, trash trucks had closed tops to try to avoid some of those problems. But a new issue emerged: With the truck piled high and the top mostly closed for sanitary reasons, it became very difficult and inefficient to hoist men upward to dump trash from above. Thankfully, in 1937, a man named George Dempster came to the rescue. That year, he invented what became known as the “Dempster Dumpster.”

This mechanized system pulled wheeled trash containers upward and automatically dumped them into the top of the trash truck. No more human hands (or ladders) were needed to climb up and dump slowly and inefficiently. Dempster’s invention was so useful that it swept (pun intended!) the developed world. And yes, it gave us the word “dumpster,” which was only popularized after Dempster’s creation rose to prominence in cities across the globe.[3]

7 Toss It Out… FAR Out!

Daily Life In Ancient Greece (3D Animated Documentary) – Everything You Need To Know

Now we know that the Dempster Dumpster revolutionized trash pickup in the 20th century. But centuries before that—literally thousands of years ago—people had no hope of enjoying the fruits of a mechanized truck rolling around and hauling away garbage?

So, what did they do? Just leave it in the streets? Well, actually, yes. For a long time, and in many more urbanized places even far back before Jesus’ birth, trash was a serious issue that cities had to figure out a way around. And some devised ingenious (if inefficient) methods for keeping their streets clean.

Take the beautiful and powerful city of Athens, Greece. Around 500 BC, Athens figured out a foolproof way to keep the streets clean of trash: force residents to haul it as far out of town as they could. Officially, it was illegal for Athenians to throw their garbage into the streets. They couldn’t leave it anywhere within the city limits, actually. And they couldn’t even leave it NEAR the city limits!

Rules stated that garbage had to be transported and dumped more than one mile away from the city. That would maintain Athens’s aesthetic appeal and prevent disease and disgusting living conditions, city leaders said. They weren’t wrong about that, but it was certainly an arduous way to toss trash. Imagine taking a two-mile round-trip journey every time you wanted to toss out your DoorDash waste![4]

6 Fresno Makes Trash History

What happens at a Sanitary Landfill??

In 1937, the city of Fresno, California, made history. It’s not the kind of history we think of when we look back on monumental human achievement, but it was important nonetheless. At the height of the Great Depression, Fresno opened up the very first sanitary landfill ever in use in the United States.

Seeking to curb open dumping all over the metropolis in the heart of California’s agriculture-laden Central Valley, city leaders opened up a massive landfill in the Annadale Avenue section of Fresno. Of course, some northern and southern Californians might not so jokingly say all of Fresno is a massive landfill. We won’t go there! We’ll just keep right on with the history tour…

The landfill was originally a 20-acre site meant for trash dumping to reduce health hazards everywhere else in the city. It expanded several times through the years as the town grew, too. In 1945, it moved south of Annadale Avenue. In 1966, it ballooned to a 100-acre site. And in 1969, the city acquired even more land to make it a 140-acre plot. All the while, trash was dumped in and covered over, and the city found a reliable way to keep its streets clean.

After exactly 50 years in operation, the landfill closed up shop in June of 1987 as the nation’s oldest operating landfill. A ceremony that summer commemorated the landfill’s impact on trash collection and public health in the U.S.—and 75 people attended to honor the area. And it seems that Fresno residents are so proud of their place in landfill history that they want to memorialize it even more! In June of 2023, city officials applied to make the landfill an officially designated National Historic Landmark![5]

5 Terrible Trash Swirls

“That’s A Big A** Catch”

Trash is a major scourge for all of the world—especially when it comes to plastic trash that doesn’t break down like other biodegradable waste products. Sadly, in the Pacific Ocean, there are not one but TWO garbage patches of significant size just floating around out there. They are both made up of trash and debris that has been left on beaches, thrown from ships, or otherwise tossed out carelessly. The foremost of the two Pacific Ocean floating trash sites is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it is massive.

The latest estimates suggest it has a surface area of about 618,000 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers). That’s an area twice the size of Texas—and about three times the size of France! And it’s all just trash floating out in the ocean with no real solution in mind. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch sits roughly halfway between Hawaii and California.

Its garbage patch cousin sits several thousand miles to the west of that, also in the Pacific Ocean. The reason the two nasty sites are where they are has to do with ocean currents. Trash from all over the coastal world catches ocean currents as it is released into the seawater, and over time, it too finds itself swirling among the massive (and ever-growing) garbage patch. Gross![6]

4 Waste Management: Japan’s Way

What Happens to Garbage in Japan

Japan does a lot of things differently (and far more efficiently) than much of the rest of the world. And they also use plastic at a much higher rate than most of the developed world, too. Because of that, the East Asian nation has altered the way they do things when it comes to producing trash and then getting rid of it. For one, Japan’s recycling rate is exceptionally high. Nearly 90% of its waste is recycled and reused.

The nation has put out these strict waste management practices to keep their communities clean. They have also found that because they produce so much plastic in the goods they sell and buy, they need to have an aggressive recycling plan to keep the amount of plastic waste at manageable levels. Sadly, critics say that even their absurdly high recycling rates may not be good enough in the end.

Other than their recycling habits, the Japanese are also very concerned with public trash and the unwanted practice of littering. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you have probably noticed how Tokyo and other major cities don’t have nearly as many public trash cans within them as you might expect for urban centers of their size. That is very much on purpose.

Public littering is seen as shameful in Japan. So, to curb the desire to dump your crap in public, the Japanese have limited the amount of public trash cans available in most major cities. The result is that Japanese people are very, very committed to taking their trash home with them and disposing of it properly—and in private.[7]

3 Waste Management: Sweden’s Way

How Sweden is turning its waste into gold | Focus • FRANCE 24 English

Japan isn’t the only nation with a novel approach to how trash is cleaned up and reused. Sweden has a groundbreaking idea that is now starting to sweep across the rest of the world: waste-to-energy plants. Basically, the Scandinavian nation converts its waste in such a way that can be turned into energy.

Rather than sending its trash to landfills where it just sits, takes up space, and poses a problem. In terms of what to do in decades and centuries, when all the landfill space fills up, Sweden converts it to energy that is then directly used to generate electricity and heat for hundreds of thousands of homes in the Nordic nation.

In fact, only about one percent of Sweden’s trash is sent off to landfills. The vast majority of the rest is either reused via plastics that are repurposed in recycling or converted to energy in this way. Those two options come in at about a 50-50 split, with the favored method of burning trash happily leading to more efficient energy usage in turn.

In recent years, studies have shown that by burning up their trash, the Swedes are providing electricity to more than 250,000 homes and powering heating technology to another million homes and businesses. That’s a massive and sustainable boon for a country with just about 10 million people![8]

2 See Ya, Space Trash!

How to clean up our space waste

In the modern age, trash isn’t just found in our cities or in our oceans. It’s also found in space! NASA astronauts produce trash during their missions. It’s inevitable, of course. These are people up in space for long stretches of time, and they will end up producing food waste and, uh, human waste in addition to all kinds of other debris. But no trash cans are floating around in space! So what do they do?

Well, interestingly enough, NASA has built a specific spacecraft meant for hauling waste home from space. These spacecraft, which go by names like Cygnus and Progress, are designed to be expendable. That means that they are filled with trash and then pointed toward the earth—where they burn up and disintegrate upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Poof! Trash gone!

Astronaut-generated waste isn’t the only space trash issue that rocket scientists have been vexed by in recent years, though. There is also the troubling case of space debris. That comes in the form of various pieces of satellites and spaceships that may fall off or scrape off in orbit and be left floating out in space alone. Sometimes, two satellites or modules collide, causing a minor debris field.

So, about a decade ago, the European Space Agency came up with a specific satellite that can float around searching for space debris. It works like a garbage truck for the galaxy, basically. It has a harpoon of sorts attached to it, which shoots out, collects space junk, and pulls it back in. Then, the module can return to Earth with the intergalactic trash to ensure it isn’t just left floating up there forever.[9]

1 Trash’s Final Frontier: Robotics!

The robot solving America’s trash crisis | Hard Reset

It seems like artificial intelligence and robots are taking over everything these days, so why not have it be the same with trash collection? Robotics companies have been hard at work developing various automated, mechanized beings that can navigate around cities and clean up trash. These robots are still in their relative infancy, but they can be controlled to go down urban streets, find discarded refuse, and snag it. Obviously, the potential of having these robots hard at work keeping cities clean is very attractive to municipal leaders and city beautification supporters alike.

But that’s not the only way robots are changing the trash game! Creations like the appropriately named TrashBot have been developed to work autonomously to sort trash for landfill and recycling. Trash sorting is a major issue for waste management companies and municipal waste outlets alike. It takes lots and lots of time and can be very arduous work to split up things designated for the landfill from things that are able to be recycled.

But TrashBot is surprisingly accurate in its picking and can split up large amounts of waste in short order that can then be efficiently separated and sent where it’s needed. The final frontier of trash management is upon us![10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen