Queen Mary University Collates Memories from Industry Professionals

An Oral History of Waste Management by University Historians in London

Professor Tilli Tansey recently led a Wellcome Trust-funded discussion on waste management, and invited experts who worked in the field since the 1960s to share their memories of working with waste.

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Professor Tilli Tansey recently led a Wellcome Trust-funded discussion on waste management, and invited experts who worked in the field since the 1960s to share their memories of working with waste.

A Professor the History of Modern Medical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) Tansey argued that waste is implicitly a matter of biomedical concern as public health relies heavily on the effective management of domestic and industrial waste’.

Contributors to this ‘Witness Seminar’ included men and women who have devoted much of their lives to waste management, predominantly in the UK and London. Politicians, policy-makers, and waste operatives contributed to the production of an  lively history, and their candid testimonies are now published in an annotated volume which is freely accessible online. 

Transcripts from the seminar have been used to produce an oral history of waste management: The Development of Waste Management in the UK c.1960–c.2000

The contributors agreed, control of waste is a vital public health issue, in terms of collection and disposal, both for the general population and for workers in the waste industry itself.

Dr Toni Gladding pointed out, for example, that the advent of recycling and ‘materials recovery’ in the late 1990s/2000s has had an impact on the health of waste operatives:  ‘… up until that point we’d been very much about containerising the waste and keeping it away from the people that are collecting it. Recycling reversed all of that.’

Such shifts in the perception of waste over time, as Professor Judith Petts put it, from ‘waste as a “good” becoming waste as a “bad”’ – when the contemporary environmental movement was born back in the late 1960s/early 1970s – demonstrate how the history of waste is not only an industrial one, but also a cultural and social story.

Drawing out participants’ memories was Dame Joan Ruddock, the Chair of the meeting, and a former MP for Lewisham/Deptford (from 1987 until 2015). Dame Joan, a key protagonist in promoting the 1989 Private Members’ Bill on fly-tipping that led to the amendment of the Control of Pollution Act, proudly admitted her passion for waste management, recalling the incredulity of fellow ministers when she leapt at the chance to become ‘Minister for Waste’ in Defra in 2007.

The impact of fly-tipping, such as discarded building rubble and cars was recalled by Ernie Sharp (1921–2015), among other waste operatives. Sharp rose swiftly from a post-war dustman on the streets of Lewisham to become the Greater London Council’s Area Manager for South London’s waste in the mid-1960s.

An early landfill management innovator, he revealeed that practices were often reactive to problems, citing the example of a landfill site in Croydon: ‘It’s a chalk pit, and the gas would go up through the fissured chalk into the gardens at the top of the hole. It was a big hole and there was a road up the top and the gas went through and killed the roots of the plants, mainly gooseberry bushes got crusts on them and that sort of thing. By then it was too late to line the site and so we had to be careful of what we put in there.’

Pre-engineered landfill

Waste had a negative impact on land prior to the development of better landfill science, and John Ferguson reminded the audience how clinical waste infected the aquatic environment.

Ferguson, a senior waste manager at the Greater London Council in the 1980s, described the ‘appalling situation’ of hospital waste surfacing in the Thames Estuary, in the form of blood products and even body parts. Eventually, but not without confusion and contention, clinical waste was separated from domestic refuse in hospitals and other healthcare institutions into yellow sacks – a scheme started in London that spread worldwide.

Professor David Wilson cited other shocking environmental pollution incidents: ‘… the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act [1972] … I believe it’s still the quickest Act of Parliament to go from conception through to enactment in ten days, in response to newspaper headlines of cyanide in drums being found on wasteland in the Midlands, near Nuneaton, where children were playing.’

Changing world

The discussion also reflected the critical role of consumerism in the evolution of waste production: domestic power switching from coal to gas; increasing affluence; the proliferation of packaging; changing food choices and preferences; disposable goods, and, not least, the growing awareness of environmental concerns and the need to ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’. 

Contributors also noted the major impact of European Union Directives on waste and the introduction of 1996’s Landfill Tax, which had a radical effect on local authorities’ waste management and environmental protection, and, consequently, the protection of public health.  

The full transcript can be read HERE

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