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
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.
Late Stone Age
Farming gradually spread across Britain and people invented new objects to make their lives simpler e.g. jugs & bowls from clay.
People learn to make bronze weapons and tools.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Building started on Exeter Cathedral
Around 1200 the first parts of the cathedral were built, with the rest built in the 14th Century.
Exe Bridge built
The first Exe Bridge was completed in 1238.
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!
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!
A law was passed stating that anyone dumping refuse in the street would be fined two shillings – at the time, a considerable sum.
1,900 people in Exeter died of the Black Death.
By Tudor Times Exeter was one of the 6 biggest cities in the UK Exeter had a population of 8,000.
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.
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
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.
Britain’s population estimated at 5,500,000.
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”.
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.
Mechanization, steam power & the weaving loom were invented and made making stuff much, much easier!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Start of Victorian Era
By early Victorian times, Exeter was only about the 60th biggest city in the country.
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.
New waste laws passed
Nuisance Removal and Disease Prevention Acts were introduced and began the process of modern waste regulation.
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.
The first public flushing toilet was introduced!
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.
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.
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’.
Alexander Graham Bell patented the first electric telephone.
German technician Paul Nipkow invented the first television.
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.
Exeter’s population 50,000
Britain’s population estimated at 41,000,000
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.
First World War
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.
Second World War
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.
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.
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.
Plastic production accelerated
Plastic began to be used for everyday objects: furniture, TVs, toilet seats, nappies, toys, food packaging etc.
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.
Control of Pollution Act
This was put in place to make improvements to waste disposal, water pollution, noise, atmospheric pollution and public health.
First PC launched
IBM launched the first ‘Personal Computer’ (PC)
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.
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.”
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.
Devon’s recycling rate = 2.7%
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The first smartphone was designed by IBM which included a touchscreen.
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.
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.
Devon’s recycling rate = 23.4%
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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.
Recycle Now launched
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Growth of recycling
Devon’s recycling rate grows rapidly with the expansion of kerbside recycling and food waste collection schemes across the County.
Launch of the iPhone
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Recycle Devon logo
Recycle Devon flower logo used for the first time
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.
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.