Humans have been throwing away stuff from the first moment they started cooking and eating, and even before that humans produced poo and wee that needed to be dealt with.

Our History of Waste Timeline provides a useful overview of all things waste related, especially related to Exeter and Devon, but relevant to the Primary National Curriculum. Explore the fascinating world of waste from the Stone Age to the Modern Era, and imagine what the future might hold!

The History of Waste timeline can be seen in real life displayed at Exeter Energy from Waste plant and forms part of our free school trips, linking science and history and providing children and their families with practical ways to reduce waste at home.

There is also a fun Kahoot, using information found within the timeline, that can be used as a classroom activity, after a trip to see the plant.

History of Waste Timeline

  • 8000BC - 3000BC

    Early Stone Age

    Hunter Gatherers

    44,000 years ago humans were living in Kents Cavern, Devon

    First humans were always on the move and only left ash, poo, bones and rotten fruit. This means waste from this time decomposed and became part of the soil.

  • 4200BC

    Late Stone Age

    Farming gradually spread across Britain and people invented new objects to make their lives simpler e.g. jugs & bowls from clay.


  • 2100BC

    Bronze Age

    People learn to make bronze weapons and tools.

  • 750BC

    Iron Age

    Small villages first formed. Hill forts were established across Devon. Archaeologists use middens or refuse heaps to work out what people in the past ate and threw away.


  • 50AD


    The Romans arrived in Exeter!

    For the next 30 years Exeter was a Roman garrison town called Isca. As many as 5000 Roman soldiers lived here at one point. Exeter became a large and important town and trading route, with an enormous bathhouse (built in 55AD, located in the current Cathedral Green) and market place lined with shops (called a Forum). The Romans built a large stone wall to contain and protect the town of Isca.

  • 450AD

    Anglo-Saxon Britain

    Glass in the Anglo-Saxon period was used in the manufacture of a range of objects including vessels, beads, windows and was even used in jewellery.


  • 1066AD

    Norman invasion

    William the Conqueror took over England after his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066!

    Small towns started to develop but these towns had no bins, drains or toilets. Waste built up in the streets and became very smelly and attracted rats and flies.

  • 1200AD

    Building started on Exeter Cathedral

    Around 1200 the first parts of the cathedral were built, with the rest built in the 14th Century.


  • 1238

    Exe Bridge built

    The first Exe Bridge was completed in 1238.

  • 1297

    Port of Exeter

    Exeter was an important and busy port, trading in wool. Marsh Barton was drained and the fields were used to graze sheep.

    A British law was introduced to keep front doors clear of rubbish, but people just dumped it outside someone else’s door!


  • 1300s

    Countess Wear built

    In the 13th century Countess Isabella of Devon built a weir (Countess Wear) to stop boats going up the river to Exeter Quay, so they would unload at Topsham and pay money and tax at the port there, which was owned by her family!

  • 1345

    Refuse Law

    A law was passed stating that anyone dumping refuse in the street would be fined two shillings – at the time, a considerable sum.


  • 1348

    Black Death

    1,900 people in Exeter died of the Black Death.

  • 1485


    By Tudor Times Exeter was one of the 6 biggest cities in the UK Exeter had a population of 8,000.


  • 1566

    Exeter Canal built

    The Exeter Canal was built at Countess Wear, reopening the port at Exeter Quay for trade with big ships again. Cloth made of local wool was woven in local towns (Honiton, Crediton, Tiverton) and traded across Europe.

    Explorers like Sir Francis Drake (born in Tavistock) and Sir Walter Raleigh (who was born in East Budleigh) were often seen walking along the quay or in the local public houses.

  • 1603AD


    Stuart England was a hotbed of rebellion and uprising. The English Civil War (1642-1651) split Devon down the middle, with some areas siding with the King and his Royalists (Cavaliers), and others following Cromwell and his Parliamentarians (Roundheads). It played a fundamental part during the war, as one of the key battlegrounds.


  • 1681 - 1793

    Exeter Glassworks

    Situated on the banks of the River Exe, stood one and maybe three, large brick cones that were the hallmark of Exeter’s long lost glass industry. Glasshouse Lane was named in 1947 after the glasshouse which it once skirted. Rich landowners would have their glass bottles personalised at the Countess Wear Glasshouse.

  • 1714

    Georgian Era

    Britain’s population estimated at 5,500,000.


  • 1500-1800

    Exeter’s wool & cloth industry

    The prosperity of Exeter from the 16th to 18th century was due to the processing and exporting of woollen cloth called kersey and later a type of twill fabric called serge. Urine was used to treat the cloth – Every night urine was collected from taverns, inns and houses by men with a “piss cart”.

  • 1712

    Atmospheric Steam Engine invented

    Heralding the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, British inventor Thomas Newcomen (born in Dartmouth, Devon in 1664) invented the atmospheric steam engine, an important precursor to the first steam engine invented by James Watt.


  • 1784

    Industrial Revolution

    Mechanization, steam power & the weaving loom were invented and made making stuff much, much easier!

  • 1801

    First organised solid waste systems appeared

    Exeter’s population 24,499

    Britain’s population estimated at 9,000,000

    The first occurrence of organised solid waste management system appeared in London in the late 18th century. A waste collection and resource recovery system was established around the ‘dust-yards’. Waste from households was mostly ash from coal fires (‘dust’) which had a market value for brick-making and as a soil improver.


  • 1808

    Pigs roam free in Exeter

    Pigs, which ate food waste, were kept in large numbers throughout the city and poultry were kept in houses. Dung heaps were a common sight and in certain areas, like Butcher’s Row, heaps of rotting offal littered the street. Scavengers were employed to clean the streets once a week.

  • 1813

    Tin cans invented

    Two Englishmen, Bryan Donkin and John Hall, set up the world’s first commercial canning factory in London. By 1813 they were producing their first tin canned goods for the Royal Navy. By 1820, tin canisters or cans were being used for gunpowder, seeds, and turpentine.


  • 1831

    Piggeries abolished

    The Board of Health working with the newly-formed ‘Commissioners of Improvement’ laid down plans to cover the drains, make more sewers and abolish piggeries from the city.

  • 1832

    Cholera outbreak in Exeter kills 438

    Reports at the time say that many families shared the same house, collecting dirty drinking water from the Quay. Slaughter houses had piles of rotting carcasses and heaps of sewage littered the town. It’s no wonder people were dying!

    A doctor called Thomas Shapter wrote a book about the outbreak of Cholera and helped clean up the town and make improvements to the water system.


  • 1837

    Start of Victorian Era

    By early Victorian times, Exeter was only about the 60th biggest city in the country.

  • 1842

    New Waste management methods needed

    As urban areas grew, Edwin Chadwick produced a report on “The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population”. This made the case for new waste management methods in major cities and towns.


  • 1846-1860

    New waste laws passed

    Nuisance Removal and Disease Prevention Acts were introduced and began the process of modern waste regulation.

  • 1850s

    Rag & Bone Men

    Informal waste management and recycling collections were well established in London and other towns: Street buyers bought any repairable items, old clothes, furniture, waste paper, bottles and glass, metals, rags, hare and rabbit skins, dripping, grease, bones and tea leaves. This occupation continued as ‘rag and-bone men’ until well after the Second World War.


  • 1860

    Loos invented

    The first public flushing toilet was introduced!

  • 1869

    Plastic invented

    The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory.

    The growing popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory, obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants.

    By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fibre, with camphor, Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory. This discovery was revolutionary. For the first time humans could create new materials.


  • 1874

    First incinerator built

    The dramatic increase in waste for disposal led to the creation of the first incineration plants, or, as they were then called, ‘destructors’. In 1874, the first incinerator was built in Nottingham by Manlove, Alliott & Co. Ltd. to the design of Alfred Fryer.

  • 1875

    First dust bins

    Public Health Act – Local authorities were made responsible for regular removal and disposal of refuse, and required households to put waste into ‘moveable receptacles’.


  • 1876

    Telephone invented

    Alexander Graham Bell patented the first electric telephone.

  • 1884

    First TV

    German technician Paul Nipkow invented the first television.


  • 1894

    Waste Management services introduced

    Local Government Act – created hundreds of new Urban and Rural District Councils with responsibility for local services including waste collection, disposal and sewerage.

  • 1901

    Modern era

    Exeter’s population 50,000

    Britain’s population estimated at 41,000,000


  • 1907

    Bakelite invented

    Bakelite (first synthetic plastic) was invented by Leo Baekeland. Bakelite was durable, heat resistant, and, unlike the first celluloid plastics, ideally suited for mechanical mass production. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite could be shaped or moulded into almost anything.

  • 1914-1918

    First World War


  • 1938

    Nylon invented

    DuPont invented the first totally synthetic fibre and gave it the trade name ‘Nylon’. This was the first flexible plastic and was used to replace silk stockings. American soldiers brought them to Britain during the Second World War.

  • 1939-1945

    Second World War

    War-time recycling

    As raw materials were scarce, the “Make do and Mend” ethos came about, with the government encouraging people to mend broken furniture and reuse old clothing for rags.

    Reducing food waste

    With strict rationing and limited supplies available, the British people reduced the amount of food waste produced by cooking only what was necessary and growing what they could from home. Grounds for allotments were cleared creating make-shift farms, bringing together communities to work the land and share the produce.

    Recycling on a grander scale

    Recycling was of vital importance during war time and in 1939 the National Salvage Campaign was launched by the Ministry of Supply. The Women’s Voluntary Service and children all played an important role in collecting paper, metal and clothes, both at home and in their community.


  • 1940

    Cogs scheme started

    In 1940 the Cogs scheme for children was launched as part of the National Salvage Campaign. Children could earn the red Junior Salvage Steward cog badge for their hard work, a bit like a Blue Peter badge. The children’s work was regarded as an essential ‘cog’ in the wheels of the war effort.

  • 1949

    Plastic lego invented

    Lego was invented in the 1930s but early designs were made from wood. The first plastic bricks were marketed in Denmark in 1949.


  • 1950s

    Plastic production accelerated

    Plastic began to be used for everyday objects: furniture, TVs, toilet seats, nappies, toys, food packaging etc.

  • 1970

    Recycling symbol designed

    A 23-year-old college student at the University of Southern California called Gary Anderson won a competition to produce a universal recycling symbol.

    First Earth Day celebrated

    Every year on April 22, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.


  • 1974

    Control of Pollution Act

    This was put in place to make improvements to waste disposal, water pollution, noise, atmospheric pollution and public health.

  • 1981

    First PC launched

    IBM launched the first ‘Personal Computer’ (PC)


  • 1985

    Council waste and recycling

    Recycling rates had fallen significantly since war time and there was no collection of recyclable material from people’s homes. Recyclable material could be taken to the Civic Amenities Tip at the site of the old incinerator.

  • 1989

    World Wide Web invented

    British computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web!

    “Before the World Wide Web there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it.”


  • 1990

    The Environmental Protection Act

    The Environmental Protection Act (EPA) 1990 is an Act of the Parliament that provides the fundamental structure and authority for waste management and control of emissions into the environment in the UK.

  • 1990-91

    Devon’s recycling rate = 2.7%

    Milestone Content goes here


  • 1993

    First smartphone

    The first smartphone was designed by IBM which included a touchscreen.

  • 1996

    EU Emissions Directive

    The EU Emissions Directive came into force which caused the old Exeter incinerator to close as it did not meet restrictions.

    The Landfill Tax was introduced and was the UK’s first environmental tax. It has been a key driver for increased recycling and a move towards Energy from Waste plants instead of landfill.


  • 1997

    Lego Lost at Sea

    In February 1997 the container ship Tokio Express lost 62 shipping containers overboard after it was hit by a rogue wave off the coast of Land’s End, Cornwall. One of these containers held just under 5 million pieces of Lego. Many of the pieces lost were from kits about the sea, including pieces from Lego Pirates and Lego Aquazone. To this day those pieces, which include octopuses, sea grass, spear guns, life rafts, scuba tanks, cutlasses, flippers and dragons, are washing up on the beaches of Devon and Cornwall.

  • 1999-2000

    Devon’s recycling rate = 23.4%

    Milestone Content goes here


  • 2002

    Launch of Don’t Let Devon go to Waste

    Launch of Don’t let Devon go to waste – and the first TV ad about recycling.

  • 2004

    Recycle Now launched

    Milestone Content goes here


  • 2004-2011

    Growth of recycling

    Devon’s recycling rate grows rapidly with the expansion of kerbside recycling and food waste collection schemes across the County.

  • 2007

    Launch of the iPhone

    Milestone Content goes here


  • 2011

    Recycle Devon logo

    Recycle Devon flower logo used for the first time

  • 2014

    Exeter ERF built

    Devon embraced Energy from Waste instead of landfill with the completion of two Energy from Waste plants – one in Exeter and one in Plymouth.


  • 2018-19

    Devon’s recycling rate = 56%

    Devon is one of the best places in the country for recycling, and barely any rubbish now goes to landfill either, thanks to the two Energy from Waste plants.