By Neil Steinberg – Chicago Sun-Times
There is no proper history of the garbage can.
A shame. If you look at contemporary American life trying to find evidence of undeniable positive change, improved garbage cans roll immediately into view.
For me, anyway. Then again, I am of an age that remembers galvanized steel garbage cans, remembers muscling them to the curb and remembers that hideous metal-on-concrete scraping sound.
Now moving garbage is quiet and easy.
How did that happen?
Jump back 70 years. Garbage was a crisis in Chicago.
“Almost half the city’s 2,000 miles of alleys have been lined with open piles of filth,” the Chicago Sun noted in August 1946. Only one in seven garbage truck stops were made to empty “tight, strong metal cans.” Thirty percent were to pick up garbage placed in “old washtubs, battered baskets and boxes.” A quarter were at concrete containers, which garbage men emptied using shovels, a process that took five times as long as tipping a can. Another quarter, nearly, were at open piles of garbage.
Corruption was baked into the system, and crooked operators resisted all change in collection methods.
Chicago residents were also at fault. As in medieval times, Chicago apartment dwellers before World War II routinely threw garbage out the windows. They had to be trained to do otherwise and threatened with fines. In the 1950s, Chicago made several vigorous pushes to promote garbage can use. In 1957 the Citizens Committee for a Cleaner Chicago set up a gilded garbage can on a float at Wacker and Wabash.
In the 1970s, 55-gallon oil drums were the standard garbage receptacle. It took two, even three, men to tip one into a truck.
It fell to reformer Harold Washington to introduce “the garbage collection system of the future,” already in use in a handful of smaller cities like Atlanta, Milwaukee and Tempe, Arizona. In 1984 he introduced what were called “supercarts” — 90-gallon wheeled cans with attached lids able to hold three times the capacity of standard cans. Supercarts are dumped mechanically into trucks, no manual lifting required.
“The first million carts we ever sold were in Chicago,” said Jim Pickett, vice president of sales at North Carolina-based Toter LLC, which still supplies the city with garbage carts, now holding 96 gallons. “We built a plant on the South Side.”
“It was slow at first . . . [going against] 100-plus years of history of user-provided containers, burning your trash in the backyard in an oil drum, or putting something on the curb,” he said.
Resistance to the new system was strong. A survey in March 1984 found that an astounding 98 percent of Chicagoans did not want the new rolling cans; 96 percent were unwilling to even try them.
“It could mean we would have to sell our home,” said a resident of the 39th ward.
Residents found the carts puzzling. Rolling carts did not, for instance, have handles on the lid or sides like those on metal garbage cans. A newspaper column on home improvement explained how to create handles for the new cans using sawed-off lengths of broom handle.
“Fear of change is the most disturbing fear,” said Ald. Roman Pucinski, who held meetings in his 41st Ward to let constituents air concerns, which included worries the wheels would break, the carts would be impossible for elderly widows to roll, or would be stolen or vandalized.
The system was set to debut April 1, 1984, two months before Patent No. 4,450,976 was granted for a “Wheeled Molded Container with Hinged Lid.” But aldermen, fighting to preserve the tradition of doling out cans in return for votes, resisted. The first wheeled garbage can used in Chicago was collected by the first truck equipped with a lift in the 8th Ward on Sept. 5, 1984. Four other wards took part in the pilot program.
Once the carts were being used, however, views quickly shifted.
“The cart is great,” Joanne Slonim of the 6100 block of North Bernard told the Sun-Times in 1986. “Nice looking, and you can keep it clean.”
Garbage men were also impressed. Barry Johnson joined the Bureau of Sanitation in 1985, but his ward, the 12th, was one of the last to get the new carts — in 1988.
“The cans, they prolonged a laborer’s life,” said Johnson, now 59 and a refuse collection coordinator. “If I was doing those drums now, I’d probably be bent over and hurting.”
The rolling carts were a rare triple win for city government.
“The key reason the carts worked is there are benefits for the homeowner: cleaner, neater, it rolls,” said Pickett. “Benefit for the workers: jobs easier, safer, fewer injuries. And benefits to the employers: lower workers’ comp, vastly improved productivity.”
And just as the water department still relies on iron pipe laid 100 years ago, so “a lot of the carts we put out in the ’80s are still in the alleys,” said Pickett.
Garbage cans are not finished evolving. Already cans around the country contain RFID chips to let trucks know when they are full. Cities are experimenting with charging homeowners less to pick up their trash if they recycle more.
“There’s more to it than you might think,” said Pickett. “Much more high-tech and interesting.”