A City Built on Garbage: New York City’s History As Told Through Its Trash

New York City’s waste can reveal a lot about its rich history and about the evolution of our garbage disposal system.


BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada via Wikimedia Commons

A fleet of garbage trucks are lined up in preparation to clean New York City’s streets.

When Trash Talks

A mini-mountain of snotty tissues from allergy season….pink eraser shavings that I’ve rubbed into a fine gray powder….seaweed packaging emptied of its tasty snack…three limp yellow banana peels with splotches of brown, effectively “carbon dating” the fruit….a knotted ball of loose human hair. Welcome to my trash bin. 

There’s a saying that goes, “You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their garbage.” Take, for example, the “Amphora Graveyard” of Monte Testaccio, the ancient Roman counterpart to the 20th-century Fresh Kills landfill. Standing 35 meters high across 4.9 acres, the Monte Testaccio is an artificial hill with an underbelly composed entirely of pottery fragments and shards from over 53 million Amphora jars. These elegant vessels, characterized by their distinct hornet-shaped base, slender neck, and gracefully cascading handles, primarily served as receptacles for storing precious olive oil. In excavating a cross-section of the spoil heap, archaeologists were able to unravel the intricate dynamics of the ancient oil trade and the insatiable imperial Roman demand for this vital commodity.

Notably, each Amphora’s neck bears the indelible mark of a titulus pictus, an inscription that details the manufacturer, the site of production, the network of distributors, and the weight of its contents. Such seemingly mundane remnants have proven instrumental in illuminating the labyrinthine trade routes that facilitated the spread of oil, with a substantial portion originating from distant shores such as Spain and Egypt. The mound’s extraordinary repository of  “trash” sheds light on the far-reaching commercial networks that shaped the socio-economic tapestry of Rome in the 1st to 3rd centuries. 

Waste is an effective historical marker for not only unraveling aspects of ancient civilizations but also for unearthing New York’s history despite its comparatively youthful existence. When we discard an object, it never truly vanishes; instead, it joins a collective time capsule that transcends generational boundaries. 

Dirty Beginnings 

Old New York City typically elicits romantic images of horse-drawn carriages hitting the cobblestone, pubs pulsating with energy, and dapper gentlemen in suits. However, the reality was much less glamorous; living in such close proximity to filth became an inescapable part of daily life despite our tendency to overlook it. New York City was not the oasis it portrayed itself as; as one unnamed Italian immigrant aptly put it, “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here […] the streets were not paved with gold […] they weren’t paved at all.” In the city’s defense, the streets were paved — albeit in a different sense — golden brown with the manure and urine of horses and pigs, the corpses of animals, and rotting food scraps. 

Prior to the 19th century, New York City operated without a centralized litter collection system, placing the burden of disposal on individuals. Unsurprisingly, many took the easiest route and discarded their waste on the streets, into rivers, and other open spaces. Combined with the irregular street cleanings and an underdeveloped sewage system, it created a hotbed for diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and yellow fever. The accumulation of waste attracted vermin, worsening the public health risks. Sailors pulling into New York’s harbors would claim that they could smell the city before they could see it. 

Colonel George Waring is featured in print in an article entitled, ‘The Man Who Cleans the Streets.’ (Courtesy The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library)

Established in 1881, The Department of Sanitation (formerly known as The Department of Street Cleaning) took on the critical task of playing janitor for the entire city. Unfortunately, during this era, corruption cast a long shadow over its efforts as those in charge rubbed the feet of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. The effectiveness of the department was undermined, leaving New York City to drown in its filth while other nations surged ahead in cleanliness and order. 

Luckily, the Tammany Hall political machine was given the boot after police corruption was exposed in the 1890s. William Strong assumed office and proposed that Theodore Roosevelt should spearhead street cleaning, a true rags-to-presidental-riches story. Sadly, Teddy had his hands full with the police department, and even the man known for wielding a “big stick” acknowledged the enormity of the filthy problem at hand.

The War on Waste needed a man like Colonel George Waring. As his name suggests, Waring was a war veteran; he was a Civil War officer and self-proclaimed engineer who took no prisoners in his battle against garbage. He earned high praise from muckraker Jacob A. Riis who wrote, “It was Colonel Waring’s broom that first let light into the slum.” 

A 1920 photo from the Wallach Division Picture Collection shows the order that Colonel Waring enforced, down to the details of the roll call. (Courtesy Wallach Division Picture Collection, New York Public Library)

Waring revolutionized the department. His command was strict and military-esque; he implemented a chain of command, designated street assignments, and set deadlines. According to Robin Nagle, the New York Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) anthropologist-in-residence, Waring once recounted to the press, “‘I’ll do it under one condition – you leave me alone. If you want to fire me, of course, that’s your right. But I will appoint and hire the people I feel are best for the job, not because they’re people you want to do favors for.’” [Waring’s words are paraphrased by Nagle]. 

Waring took it a step further, forcing his “army” into combat gear — an all-white attire and a pith hat similar to the ones police wore. He wanted the public to associate the workers with public health and authority. 

Nicknamed the White Wings, people initially mocked the outfits — even the workers complained. A White Wing told the New York Times in 1910, “I’ve got a snap because I have nothing to do but potter around the streets all day dressed up in a white suit. Now, just look at these trousers. How long do you suppose they stay clean […]? Just sixteen minutes by the clock.” 

Despite the ridicule, the squad’s diligence quickly turned public opinion into admiration. The streets were clean at last. Nagle explained to the Collectors Weekly, “Waring was only in office for three years, but after he left, nobody could use the old excuses that Tammany had used to dodge the issue of waste management. They had always said it was too crowded, with too many diverse kinds of people […]. New York was different and it just couldn’t be done. Waring proved them wrong.” 

In a New York Times article published in 1895 entitled ‘Clean Streets at Last,’ a staff reporter infiltrates Waring’s two-horse buggy in order to survey the roads with him. He hopes to find flaws with Waring’s system but he’s caught off guard by the Colonel’s question: “Where shall we drive?” The journalist assumed this would be a scripted tour just like what Potemkin did when Catherine II was visiting the worst corners of Russia. Waring’s question made it clear that there was nothing to hide. They did not visit the wealthiest — and thus the cleanest — neighborhoods, nor did Waring specifically clean the areas they were touring. 

The pair turned onto a street supervised by meticulous worker #1,362. He was not content with merely sweeping but took painstaking care to polish each individual asphalt stone as well. “The man did not know that he had an admirer on the sidewalk who appreciated constant, honest, and zealous toil […] You could see the epidermis of the street.” 

Harper’s Weekly shows the improvements of two streets, 212 Sullivan Street (March, 1893 & May 1895) and 9 Varick Place (March 1893 & May 1895) respectively. (Courtesy General Research Division, The New York Public Library)

As they drove onto another avenue, an unspoken understanding fell between them — these were once the filthiest streets of New York. “The Times man had seen dead cats there festering on a July day, black with buzzing swarms of flies; piles of decaying vegetables, and green gutters, with bubbles bursting with fetid gases. Now he noticed that there were clean gutters and absolute sweetness. There was not even a modest potato peel astray nor a vulgar vagrant melon rind.” 

After thirty-five minutes and a trip down the main thoroughfare, the verdict was announced: “The […] reporter failed. He could not report a single cart out of place.”

Murky Waters

In 1990, the Wallach Division Picture Collection published photos showing one of the earliest forms of “collection trucks” in New York City. (Courtesy The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library)

The question remains: Where did all the refuse go if not the streets? If the land were to maintain its spick-and-span appearance, the next logical answer was the ocean. 

At the time, the standard garbage truck was a horse-drawn wagon. Though it was tedious, workers made multiple trips, piling litter onto tiny pushcarts for disposal in barges. Compared to the meticulous street cleanings, the dumping was highly unorganized. As the White Wings tipped their load overboard, they created thick puffs of grimy smoke and would occasionally miss the scow. There was not a means of securing the trash, so a gentle breeze would often push layers of rubbish into the water.

On the barge, “scow-trimmers,” mainly of Italian descent, foraged through the trash (as debris was dumped directly onto them, might I add) in an effort to balance the load by spreading it. These families survived off of what they could scavenge from the scow, such as food or resellable items. Waring justified this dangerous role by arguing that the dirtiness would not affect their health because Italians were suited for this type of work.

The City required that the barge be dumped 17 to 21 nautical miles from shore, yet this trip was often shortened. The waste found refuge in the shores of New Jersey and Long Island, where the garbage created its own artificial coastline. A visitor to Coney Island spoke with a gentleman who said, “See that scow; all of that will be upon us by tomorrow.”

New York City unloaded its trash in the ocean near popular Manhattan and Brighton Beaches. (Courtesy Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. )

Smoky Skies

New Jersey sued. The pollution rendered bathing beaches unusable, and “the average count of intestinal bacilli […] was up to 4,700 per 100 cubic centimeters,” double the amount considered safe for swimming. When the Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey’s favor, the City was given only three years to construct its incinerators, a project worth over $80,000,000 (not adjusted for inflation). 

The Inwood plant opened on June 28th, 1934, with a sarcastic opening address from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He felt that the efficiency and design were compromised to meet the impending deadline. According to the digital newspaper MyInwood, LaGuardia said, 

The New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated records Collection shows Mayor Fiorello La Guardia pinning a medal onto a sanitation worker. (Courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.)

“In the past it has been quite easy to make speeches on such an occasion. All the Mayor had to do was dig out an old speech about receiving ‘this new modern plant.’ In this instance this was not possible. The plant is not modern, not well planned, although it conforms to all of the specifications. It was three-quarters finished on January 1 and we had to take it. […] It was the first time in the municipal history that a city had met a Supreme Court order of such a nature without asking for an extension of time. […] I like to be neighborly, but in a spirit of friendly neighborliness, I ask want to warn neighboring cities that if they dump garbage, I’ll go to the United States Supreme Court order and dump some of the choicest Manhattan garbage right at their doorstep.”

But garbage was a pesky never-ending, ever-evolving problem. The smell of waste being cremated into ash resulted in numerous complaints. In 1970, concerns over air quality and the incinerators deprecating home value closed the plant for good. 

Resident John Stone commented, “Having lived in Inwood from 1940 to 1957 (and his parents lived there until 2005), I well remember the cinders in the air. The collars of my white shirts would be black by the end of a hot summer’s day. I can still picture my mother scrubbing my shirt collars with a brush and a paste of Rinso and water.”

Back on Solid Ground

In the aftermath of 9/11, David Leach of the Army Corps of Engineers and Ted Monette, FEMA federal coordinating officer communicate the process of getting debris from Ground Zero to the Fresh Kills landfill, which had been temporarily reopened for disaster relief. (Photo by Andrea Booher/ FEMA News Photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

With many incinerators being slowly phased out, the Fresh Kills landfill slowly grew in popularity from its temporary opening in 1948 until its closure in 2001. In under a decade, it became the largest landfill in the world, importing 29,000 short tons of household waste at its peak. The four trash mounds visibly represent our excessive consumption as New Yorkers built “new land” three times the size of Central Park from waste alone. Nowadays, the Staten Island landfill is being restored into a park as we try to mummify the Fresh Kills landfill under dirt like a dirty secret.

The Present: Not My Backyard

Our current system runs like this: a fleet of 2,100 collection trucks is sent out for curbside pickup. The 12,000 tons of trash are then delivered to transfer stations where the garbage is unloaded and pushed into containers beneath the facility. Once the containers reach a certain weight, they are capped, hoisted onto the barge, and shipped out to railcars that will reach landfills as far as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. While 30 percent of the waste is converted to energy, the rest of the trash faces the same fate as its Fresh Kills’ predecessors.  

While the sanitation department deserves high praise for its seamless waltz of garbage trucks, sanitation workers, and disposal facilities, it seems that our current system embodies the phrase “out of sight, out of mind.” One has to wonder whether shipping our trash elsewhere is a sustainable long-term solution. 

A Disappearing Act

Our opinions of the sanitation force have largely shifted from Waring’s time when parades celebrated the successes of the department. These days, restless New Yorkers sigh at getting stuck behind a garbage truck and scorn the workers as well. “Get an education or you’ll end up a garbage man,” is an often heard phrase. 

Robin Nagle, an expert on discard studies, and author of Picking Up, and someone who experienced firsthand the life of a sanitation worker for the DSNY, states that this is simply untrue. Instead, she calls the workers the first line of defense, the workforce that powers the city and makes everything else possible. She reasons that people are so critical of “san men” because they deal with what we want to ignore most — our trash and our short-lived existence. 

The Wallach Division Picture Collection shows a White Wing with his broom, pan, and mobile garbage can meticulously sweeping a street. (Courtesy The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library.)

Decades earlier, Colonel Waring made the same claim. He explained, “I want people to know that in this department I have men who are brilliantly educated […] I may say that the salaries are not bad. It is a calling which is thoroughly honorable and useful. A doctor attends to the special health of a limited number of people. An Inspector of Sanitation of a vast city has even greater responsibilities […] and if you think it is an easy work to do, you are mistaken.”

Sanitation deserves more respect than it is given. The job is listed in the top five of the most dangerous jobs; the workers not only haul bags around moving cars but also get hurt due to people’s bad dumping habits. Needles and sharp objects often puncture these pickup artists, and the truck’s 2,750 psi pressure can cause chemicals and glass to shoot back out toward the workers, injuring or even killing them. Nagle notes, “I’ve seen those shatter into a bajillion shards of gorgeous little flying knives.”

Nagle recalls that when she was a sanitation worker, she would fade away the moment that she put on her uniform. She told Collectors Weekly, “The Department of Sanitation started out in the public eye because […] the before and after was stark. We’re now very used to a certain presence and level of competence and waste management being very well done […] Therefore, it’s almost like the department is a victim of its own success. The entire project is made invisible, and you only notice it in the gap, in the absence […] But when they’re out there every day, maintaining the illusion that there’s an ‘away’ to which we can throw things, then it’s all sort of magic. It just goes ‘away.’”

Afterword — Thanks to Our Sanitation Workers

I’ve pulled many all-nighters — and while this is tiring, it has allowed me to see the garbage trucks pull into my neighborhood every morning. The sun is barely up. The sky is a mixed hue of stormy blue, blending into pinks and oranges at the horizon. Like clockwork, the quiet neighborhood is suddenly interrupted by the low murmur of the garbage truck, huffing and screeching in intervals. Thankful for the break, I rush to the window, and there they are — two men hauling bags over their shoulders, in a perfect symphony. Heave. Throw. Drive. Next house. 

I’m suddenly filled with a sense of warmth and gratitude. I think to myself, “while everyone else sleeps the morning away, these men have already started their day.” Somehow, seeing them hard at work always gave me the strength to continue my work into the morning. It’s not long before the rumbling grows fainter — the garbage truck gives a  persistent wheeze as if to say “this is hard work.”

The pair turned onto a street supervised by meticulous worker #1,362. He was not content with merely sweeping, but took painstaking care to polish each individual asphalt stone as well. “The man did not know that he had an admirer on the sidewalk who appreciated constant, honest, and zealous toil […] You could see the epidermis of the street.”