The Invention of the Trash Can: A Historical Perspective

Estimated read time 19 min read


The trash can, now a ubiquitous component of waste management, has an intriguing history that dates back over a century. This article uncovers the exact timeline of the trash can’s invention and its subsequent impact on society.

The Early Days of Waste Disposal

Prior to the invention of the trash can, waste disposal methods were rudimentary and often unsanitary. This section explores the initial practices of waste management in human settlements.

When Was the Trash Can Invented?

The pivotal question, of when was the trash can invented, is addressed here. The article pinpoints the late 19th century as the era when the trash can was first introduced, coinciding with growing concerns over urban cleanliness and public health.

The Public Health Revolution and the Trash Can

The emergence of the trash can played a critical role in revolutionizing public health. This part discusses how its introduction aided in controlling the spread of diseases and improving the living conditions in urban areas.

Evolution and Design Innovations of the Trash Can

The trash can has undergone significant design transformations since its inception. This section examines these changes, from basic containers to advanced models designed for efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Global Adoption of the Trash Can

The adoption of the trash can was not uniform across the world. This part delves into how different cultures and countries integrated the trash can into their waste management systems, adapting it to local needs and contexts.

The Modern-Day Trash Can

Today’s trash can is a product of years of innovation and adaptation. This section highlights its current role in waste management, including challenges like increasing waste volumes and the push towards recycling and sustainability.


From its invention in the late 19th century to its vital role in contemporary waste management, the trash can has been instrumental in shaping modern sanitation practices. Its history is a testament to the importance of innovation in public health and environmental care.

Additional Resources

For more detailed information on the history of the trash can and waste management practices, readers are encouraged to consult historical documentation, sanitation engineering resources, and public health studies.

10000 BCGarbage becomes an issue as people first begin to establish permanent settlements
400 BCThe first municipal dump is established in ancient Athens
200The first sanitation force is created by the Romans. Teams of two men walk along the streets, pick up garbage and throw it in a wagon.
1388The English Parliament bans dumping of waste in ditches and public waterways.
1551The first recorded use of packaging: German papermaker Andreas Bernhart begins placing his paper in wrappers labeled with his name and address.
1657New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) passes a law against casting waste in the streets.
1690The Rittenhouse Mill, America’s first paper mill, opens in Philadelphia making paper from recycled cotton and linen as well as used paper.
1710Colonists in Virginia commonly bury their trash. Holes are filled with building debris, broken glass or ceramic objects, oyster shells and animal bones. They also throw away hundreds of suits of armor that were sent to protect colonists from arrows of native inhabitants.
1776The first metal recycling in America occurs when patriots in New York City melt down a statue of King George III and make it into bullets.
1792Benjamin Franklin uses slaves to carry Philadelphia’s waste downstream.
1800Pigs loose in city streets throughout the country eat garbage and leave their own wastes behind.
1800Visitors describe New York City as a “nasal disaster, where some streets smell like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.”
1810The tin can is patented in London by Peter Durand.
1834Charleston, West Virginia, enacts a law protecting vultures from hunters. The birds help eat the city’s garbage.
1850Junk dealers in Reno, Nevada scavenge personal belongings from the Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails. Pioneers abandoned the items on the long trek west.
1860American newspapers are now printed on paper made from wood pulp fibers rather than rags.
1860Residents of Washington, D.C. dump garbage and slop into alleys and streets, pigs roam freely, slaughterhouses spew nauseating fumes and rats and cockroaches infest most dwellings including the White House.
1866New York City’s Metropolitan Board of Health declares war on garbage, forbidding the “throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets.
1868Brothers I.S. and John Hyatt successfully manufacture “celluloid,” the first commercial synthetic plastic. It replaces wood, ivory, metal and linen in such items as combs, billiard balls, eyeglasses and shirt collars.
1869The first commercial plastic, called celluloid, was developed by an entrepreneurial maker of dental plates and novelty items. He had answered an ad placed by a supplier of billiards equipment offering a reward for developing a suitable replacement material for elephant ivory to make billiard balls
1872New York City stops dumping its garbage from a platform built over the East River.
1874The organized incineration of collected trash begins in Nottingham, England.
1879Frank Woolworth opens the first five and dime store in Utica, New York. He pioneers the idea of displaying goods on open counters so customers can see and feel merchandise (a practice that later makes larger, theft proof packaging necessary).
1879“Thither were brought the dead dogs and cats, the kitchen garbage and the like, and duly dumped. This festering, rotten mess were picked over by rag pickers and wallowed over by pigs, pigs and humans contesting for a living from it, and as the heaps increased, the odors increased also, and the mass lay corrupting under a tropical sun, dispersing the pestilential fumes where the winds carried them.” – Minister describing the New Orleans dump to the American Public Health Association.
1880Many Americans still believe that diseases such as typhoid fever are caused by “miasma” or gases coming from garbage and sewers.
1880New York City scavengers remove 15,000 horse carcasses from the streets.
1885The first garbage incinerator in the U.S. is built on Governors Island in New York Harbor.
1885-1908180 garbage incinerators are built in the United States.
1889“Appropriate places for (refuse) are becoming scarcer year by year, and the question as to some other method of disposal…must soon confront us. Already the inhabitants in proximity to the public dumps are beginning to complain.” – Health Officer’s report, Washington, D.C.
1892Beer bottles now sport a metal cap to prevent spoilage.
1893“The means resorted to by a large number of citizens to get rid of their garbage and avoid paying for its collection would be very amusing were it not such a menace to public health. Some burn it, while others wrap it up in paper and carry it on their way to work and drop it when unobserved, or throw it into vacant lots or into the river.” – Boston Sanitary Committee
1894The citizens of Alexandria, Virginia are disgusted by the sight of barge loads of garbage floating down the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. They take to sinking the barges upriver from their community.
1895King C. Gillette, a traveling salesman, invents a razor with disposable blades.
1896Chicago’s City Council records its concern for the death rate in the 19th Ward, which has eight miles of unpaved roads that can’t be swept, roads “polluted to the last degree with trampled garbage, excreta and other vegetables and animal refuse of the vilest description.”
1897The first recycling center is established in New York City.
1898Colonel George Waring, New York’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, organizes the country’s first rubbish sorting plant for recycling.
1899The federal Rivers and Harbors Act restricts dumping in navigable rivers, to keep them open for shipping.
1900American cities begin to estimate and record collected wastes. According to one estimate, each American produces annually: 80 – 100 pounds of food waste; 50 – 100 pounds of rubbish; 300 – 1,200 pounds of wood or coal ash – up to 1,400 pounds per person.
1900Greater acceptance of the germ theory of disease begins to shift the job of garbage removal from health departments to public works departments. Health officers, it is felt, should spend their time battling infectious diseases, not cleaning up “public nuisances” such as garbage.
1900Hills Brothers Coffee in San Francisco puts the first vacuum-packed coffee on the market.
1900Small and medium sized towns build piggeries, where swine are fed fresh or cooked garbage. One expert estimates that 75 pigs can eat one ton of refuse per day.
1900There are over 3 million horses working in American cities, each producing over 20 pounds of manure and gallons of urine per day, most of which is left on the streets.
1902A survey of 161 cities by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds that 79% of them provide regular collection of refuse.
1903Corrugated paperboard containers are now used commercially.
1904Large-scale aluminum recycling begins in Chicago and Cleveland.
1904Montgomery Ward mails out 3 million catalogues weighing four pounds each.
1904Postmaster General Henry Clay Payne authorizes permit mail. This means that with a single fee, 2,000 or more pieces of third or fourth class mail can be posted without stamps. This opens the door for direct mail advertising and mass solicitations.
1905New York City begins using a garbage incinerator to generate electricity to light the Williamsburg Bridge.
1907An unexpectedly thick run of toilet paper is converted to become the first paper towels.
1908paper cups replace tin cups at water vending machines on trains and in public buildings.
1909102 of 180 incinerators built since 1885 are abandoned or dismantled. Many had been inadequately built or run. Also, American’s abundant land and widely spaced population made dumping garage cheaper and more practical.
1909Kraft paper pulp first made in the United States, a process developed in Germany in 1883.
1910City beautification programs become more and more popular. Many cities have juvenile sanitation leagues whose members promise to help keep streets and neighborhoods clean. Sanitation works wear white uniforms, reminiscent of other public workers such as doctors and nurses.
1912Cellophane (clear plastic) is invented by Swiss chemist Dr. Jacques Brandenberger, which encourages the use of plastic packaging.
1914W.K. Kellogg invents a wax paper wrapper for Corn Flakes boxes.
1915The National Clean-Up and Paint-Up bureau sponsors 5,000 local clean-up campaigns.
1916Dr. Thomas Jasperson obtains a patent for making paper from de-inked wastepaper.
1916Major cities estimate that of the 1,000 to 1,750 pounds of waste generated by each person per year, 80% is coal and wood ash.
1916Waxed paper is commonly used to wrap bread.
1917Shortages of raw materials during World War I prompt the federal government to start the Waste Reclamation Service, part of the War Industries Board. Its motto is “Don’t Waste Waste – Save it.” Every article of waste is considered valuable for industry.
1920During this decade, “reclaiming” or filling wetlands near cities with garbage, ash and dirt becomes a popular disposal method.
1920The first commercial radio broadcast. The technology held far reaching implications for advertising and purchasing. Americans buy 1.5 million radios within the year.
1924The Kleenex facial tissue is introduced.
1926Clarence Saunders opens the first supermarket. Pre-packaged food and self service packaging increases selection for consumers and lowers the cost of food.
1928Cellophane is invented by the DuPont Cellophane Company. The transparent material is used as a protective wrapping for food and other products.
1928Teleprinters and teletypewriters come into use.
1929Aluminum foil is invented.
1930A new plastic, polyvinyl chloride, is patented by B.F. Goodrich. It is used as a replacement for rubber, as protection against corrosion and for adhesives.
1930Another plastic, polystyrene, is put on the market by a German firm, I.G. Farben, and also produced by Dow Chemical Company. The hard, shiny material is molded into tackle boxes, refrigerator linings and other items.
1930Kimberly Clark develops disposable sanitary pads.
1932The development of compactor garbage trucks increases vehicle capacity.
1933Communities on the New Jersey shore obtain a court order forcing New York City to stop dumping garbage in the Atlantic Ocean. On July 1, 1934, the Supreme Court upholds the lower court action, but applies it only to municipal waste, not commercial or industrial wastes.
1935Rohm and Haas invents Plexiglass, a clear plastic used in headlights, lenses, windows, clocks and jewelry.
1935General Electric begins producing and marketing a garbage “Disposal.”
1935The first beer can is produced by Kreuger’s Cream Ale in Richmond, VA. Over the next six months, company sales increased 550% because customers loved the convenience.
1936Milk products are now commonly sold in paper packaging.
1937The DuPont Company patents nylon, the world’s first synthetic fiber. Its strength, resistance to moisture and mildew, and good recovery after stretching lead to its use in stockings, electrical parts, power tools and car accessories.
1939Coal and wood ash make up 43% of New York City’s refuse, down from 80% in 1916.
1939Paperback books are introduced, selling for 25 cents.
1939Wisconsin Select beer is sold in no deposit, no return bottles to compete with the recent introduction of beer in no return cans.
1939Birds Eye introduces the first pre-cooked frozen foods – chicken fricassee and criss cross steak.
1940Japanese conquests in Southeast Asia cut of America’s supply of tin, hampering canned food production.
1941America enters World War II. Rationing of such materials as wood and metal forces an increased reliance on synthetic materials such as plastics. Low-density polyethylene film, developed during wartime, replaces cellophane as the favorite food wrap by 1960.
1942Americans collect rubber, paper, glass, metals and fats to help the war effort. Paper collections are so successful they overwhelm the markets by the spring of 1942.
1942Methods and materials for wartime shipment of food make World War II “the great divide” in the packaging and storage industry.
1943The aerosol can is invented by two researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
1944Styrofoam is invented by Dow Chemical Co.
1945The first American ballpoint pens go on sale for $12.50 each at Gimbel’s in New York.
1946Fortune Magazine heralds the arrival of the “dream era…The Great American Boom is on.”
1947“Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history…It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even through it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift.” – J. Gordon Lippincott, industrial designer
1948American Public Health Association predicts that the garbage disposal will cause the garbage can to “ultimately follow the privy” and become an “anachronism.”
1948Fresh Kills landfill is opened in Staten Island, New York. It later becomes the world’s largest city dump. Fresh Kills and the Great Wall of China are the only man-made objects visible from space.
1950A second hydraulic system to eject garbage is added to garbage trucks.
1950An improved paper cup for hot beverages is introduced. It is lined with polyethylene instead of wax.
1950The growth of convenience foods (frozen, canned, dried, boxed, etc) increases the amounts and changes the types of packaging thrown away.
1953The American economy’s “ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” – Chairman of President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors.
1953Swanson introduces the first successful TV dinner: turkey, mashed potatoes and peas.
1954“Never underestimate the buying power of a child under seven. He has brand loyalty and the determination to see that his parents purchase the products of his choice.” – Dr. Frances Horwitch (“Miss Frances” of TV’s Ding Dong School) at Chicago advertising conference.
1957High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is developed by Standard Oil of Indiana and Phillips Petroleum (now used for milk containers.)
1958The Bic Crystal Company introduces the throwaway pen.
1959Philadelphia closes its reduction plant (a facility for turning organic wastes into fats, grease and oils) the last one in the country.
1959The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes a standard guide to sanitary landfilling. To guard against rodents and odors, it suggests compacting the refuse and covering it with a layer of soil each day.
1959The first photocopier, the Xerox 914, is introduced – 22 years after it was patented.
1960Bead molded polystyrene cups are introduced. They provide better insulation for hot drinks.
1960Bread is sold bagged in polyethylene rather than wrapped in waxed paper.
1960Easy open tops (pop tops) for beverage cans are invented. Iron City Beer in Pittsburgh is the first to try the invention and sales increase immediately.
1960The first disposable razors are sold.
1961Sam Yorty runs successfully for mayor of Los Angeles on a platform to end the inconvenience of separating refuse. A city ordinance eliminates the sorting of recyclables.
1963The aluminum can for beverages is developed.
1965The Federal Government realizes that garbage has become a major problem and enacts the Solid Waste Disposal Act. This calls for the nation to find better ways of dealing with trash.
1968President Lyndon Johnson commissions the National Survey of Community Solid Waste Practices, which provides the first comprehensive data on solid waste since cities began to record amounts and types of waste in the early 1900s.
1968The U.S. aluminum industry begins recycling discarded aluminum products, from beverage cans to window blinds.
1969Seattle, Washington institutes a new fee structure for garbage pick up. Residents pay a base rate for one to four cans and an additional fee for each additional bundle or can.
1970The Federal Clean Air Act enacted. New regulations lead to incineration shut downs.
1970The first Earth Day. Millions of people rally nationwide on April 22.
1970United States Environmental Protection Agency is created.
1971Oregon passes the nation’s first bottle bill. By offering cash for aluminum, glass and plastic containers, it removes about 7% of its garbage from the waste stream.
1972According to William Ruckelshaus, head of EPA, solid waste management is a “fundamental ecological issue. It illustrates, perhaps more clearly than any other environmental problem, that we must change many of our traditional attitudes and habits.”
1972The Federal Clean Water Act is enacted to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.
1972The first buy-back centers for recyclables are opened in Washington State. They accept beer bottles, aluminum cans and newspapers.
1974The first city-wide use of curbside recycling bins occurs in University City, Missouri for collecting newspapers.
1975“That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is denied by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but is preached incessantly by every American television set.” – Robert Bellah, The Broken Covenant.
1976The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act creates the first significant role for federal government in waste management. It emphasizes recycling and conservation of energy.
1976The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is passed, which requires all dumps to be replaced with “sanitary landfills.” The enforcement of this act will increase the cost of landfill disposal, and that will make resource-conserving options like recycling more appealing.
1976The Toxic Substances Control Act is passed. Before this and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act went into effect, any individual or business could legally dump any kind and amount of hazardous chemicals in landfills.
1976Three people from Bartlesville, Oklahoma get a patent on a method for purifying and reusing lubricating oils.
1977Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soda bottles are introduced to replace glass bottles. The plastic was first developed in England in 1941.
1978The Supreme Court rules that garbage is protected by the Interstate Commerce Clause; therefore, one state cannot ban shipments of waste from another.
1979EPA issues landfill criteria that prohibit open dumping.
1980Polypropylene is introduced and used for butter and margarine tubs and for drinking straws.
1983The space shuttle is pulled out of service to replace a window that had been severely pitted by a chip of paint from space junk.
1984During the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, athletes, trainers, coaches and spectators produce 6.5 million pounds of trash in 22 days, more than six pounds per person per day.
1984Hazardous and Solid Waste Act amendments and reauthorization to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act require tougher federal regulation of landfills.
1986Fresh Kills, in Staten Island, New York, becomes the largest landfill in the world.
1986Rhode Island becomes the first state to pass mandatory recycling laws for aluminum and steel cans, glass, newspapers and #1 and #2 plastic.
1986Rhode Island enacts the nation’s first statewide mandatory recycling law.
1986The city of San Francisco meets its goal of recycling 25% of its commercial and residential waste.
1987The Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, Tucson begins to excavate modern landfills as if they were ancient archaeological sites. The goal is to determine exactly what is inside landfills and how much of it biodegrades.
1987The Mobro, a Long Island garbage barge, is turned away by six states and three countries. The garbage (mostly paper) is finally incinerated in Brooklyn and the ash buried in a landfill near Islip.
1988“Nobody ever has enough.” – Lewis Lapham, Money and Class in America.
1988The EPA estimates that more than 14,000 landfills have closed since 1978, more than 70% of those operating at that time. The landfills were full, unsafe or the owners declined to adhere to new standards.
1988The Plastic Bottle Institute develops a material-identification code system for plastic bottle manufacturers (this is our current #1-#7 system).
1989EPA issues “An Agenda for Action,” calling for an integrated solid waste management approach to solving solid waste problems with waste problems, with waste prevention and recycling as its first two priorities.
1990140 recycling laws enacted in 38 states and the District of Columbia.
1990McDonald’s announces plans to stop the use of Styrofoam packaging of its food due to consumer protests.
1990Neither shortening nor lengthening product life can be a general principle. The strategy, rather, is to fine tune the durations of things, now avoiding cheap things that break too soon and clog our trash cans, now expensive objets that last too long and clog our lives.” – Kevin Lynch, Wasting Away.
1990On December 4, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced that they will begin using a recycled PET (#1 plastic) bottle made of about 25% recycled plastic resin.
1991EPA issues comprehensive municipal solid waste landfill criteria required by the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendment.
1991“Our economy is such that we cannot ‘afford’ to take care of things: labor is expensive, time is expensive, money is expensive, but materials – – the stuff of creation – – are so cheap that we cannot afford to take care of them.” – Wendell Berry
1993Municipal Solid Waste landfill criteria become effective for most landfills in the U.S.
1993“We’re reminded a hundred times a day to buy things, but we’re not reminded to take care of them, repair them, reuse them or give them away.” – Michael Jacobson, Center for the Study of Commercialism
2000Cities in California are required to recycle 50% of its waste.
1998 – The Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.