Literal Garbage- How Modern America Remembers the History of Waste Disposal Methods

Though it has already been established that the development of waste management is important to American history since it inhibited the growth of diseases that could have had disastrous effects and gives modern society a window into the past, this subject is sadly not well remembered. In pop culture, modern art, or modern music, for instance, one would find almost no reference anywhere to the significance of waste disposal treatments and methods as they have changed over time. This lack of acknowledgement stems from the nature of the topic, which to many people is unpleasant. However, this doesn’t mean this important aspect of American history is completely forgotten, but rather that it is instead preserved in those places where the only expected audience are those who are prepared and have arrived in order to learn and appreciate history- museums.

One such museum is the New York Reliquary, where an exhibit opened up specifically dedicated to the history of trash in their city. “At the museum’s opening on Sunday, City Council member Antonio Reynoso, the chairman of the council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said he was excited for the future of trash. ‘People say it’s hard to make trash sexy, but the City Reliquary has done just that,’ Reynoso said to the delight of the assembled trash heads,”^1. It is indeed true that New York Reliquary has done a fine job at making the history of waste management more appealing, but despite its successes, this museum still faces some issues. “Right away, Scanga says he knew there was a show to be had, and started collaborating with Nagle and other trash heads (the nomenclature trash enthusiasts use to refer to themselves)”^2. The exhibit was built by a specific group of people dedicated to this history, and considering Reynoso’s statement was directed to this audience, it was most likely built for these supporters as well. What this means is that instead of showing the significance of waste management practices in the past to those who are not aware of this importance, this museum is more of a tribute only meant to be visited by those who already appreciate the significance of this history.

The New York Reliquary is not the only museum with exhibits related to garbage and trash however, and in fact, there was even a museum dedicated to garbage in Stratford, Connecticut. “The museum, which in 2010 provided educational services to 30,708 adults and children through museum visits and outreach programs, has an annual operating cost of about $300,000,”^3. So, unlike the New York Reliquary, the Garbage Museum instead tries to appeal to those not informed about practices regarding trash disposal, especially children, who not only tolerate the typically considered “foul” subject, but also have no knowledge whatsoever on the topic. However, there are two main issues with this museum, with the first and foremost being that it eventually closed due to a lack of funds. “Historically, the museum, which aims to educate youngsters about recycling, has been funded by the Southwest Connecticut Recycling Committee, a group of 19 local

Image result for trash-o-saurus
Trash-o-saurus at the Stratford Garbage Museum

municipalities that trucked recyclables to the regional recycling facility and helped support the museum through deposit fees. But in 2009, about half of those cities and towns pulled out of the group and began sending their recyclables elsewhere. Funding for the museum plummeted,”^4. This eventual loss of funding does make sense though, because in truth the museum was not much more than a gimmick in order for it to be relatable to its intended audience, and this was the second issue with it. It’s main attraction was actually a dinosaur made out of trash that was dubbed the Trash-o-saurus, which goes to show how unprofessional the museum truly was. Overall, in regards to museums and waste management, there are only going to be two main types- high quality museums built specifically to entertain those already enthused with the history or low quality museums built specifically to poorly educate a more general audience.

Other than museums though, there is one last refuge for the abandoned past of waste management in the United States, and this is in extremely professional historical documents. The main issue with this though is that they are like the New York Reliquary but taken one step further, for while a common person would simply be uninterested in this museum, a common person wouldn’t even understand the historical context or in depth analysis of a historical document. For example, an excerpt from a journal on metropolitan sewer history says, “The central watchwords of many political reformers during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as Nolen suggested, were conservation, corporate-like government, efficiency, and social engineering,”^5. Though some may be able to decipher what this historian’s account is saying, the truth is that most cannot, and connecting what the historian is saying to the topic of waste management requires even further skill. The complexity of understanding a historian’s document could confuse even the “trash heads” who attend and helped create the exhibit of the New York Reliquary.

In the end, because of the unsavory subject that is waste management, its only references in modern society either alienate the vast majority of the population due to their professional and complex nature, such as a historian’s journal or the New York Reliquary, or it is too poorly done to be efficient at educating the public, such as the Garbage Museum. This should not detract from the true importance of the subject however, and if anything it should compel one to extend themselves out of their comfort zone and approach topics most would shy away from, because these subjects are significant to American history no matter how distasteful modern society may find them.



Lynch, Diego. “Sifting Through City Reliquary’s ‘NYC Trash!’ Exhibit.” Bedford + Bowery. 14 Nov 2017, 13 Jun 2018.

Lyte, Brittany. “Financially struggling Garbage Museum closes its door.” ctpost. 25 Aug 2011, 6 Jun 2018.

Matthew, Teresa. “Diving Into New York’s Trashy Past.” CityLab. 14 Nov 2017, 6 Jun 2018.

Schultz, Stanley K., and Clay McShane. “To Engineer the Metropolis: Sewers, Sanitation, and City Planning in Late-Nineteenth-Century America.” The Journal of American History 65, no. 2 (1978): 389-411. doi:10.2307/1894086.

“Trashosaurus at Garbage Museum, Stratford.” Drive I-95 Photo Gallery. 25 Apr 2007, 13 Jun 2018.



  1. Teresa Matthew. “Diving Into New York’s Trashy Past.” CityLab, 14 Nov 2017, 6 Jun 2018,
  2. Teresa Matthew. “Diving Into New York’s Trashy Past.” CityLab, 14 Nov 2017, 6 Jun 2018,
  3. Brittany Lyte. “Financially struggling Garbage Museum closes its door.” ctpost, 25 Aug 2011, 6 Jun 2018,
  4. Brittany Lyte. “Financially struggling Garbage Museum closes its door.” ctpost, 25 Aug 2011, 6 Jun 2018,
  5. Stanley K. Schultz and Clay McShane. “To Engineer the Metropolis: Sewers, Sanitation, and City Planning in Late-Nineteenth-Century America.” The Journal of American History 65, no. 2 (1978): 389-411, doi:10.2307/1894086