The Colonel Who Cleaned up New York
Col. George E. Waring, c. 1897. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

People from Ontario like to brag that they invented curbside recycling – the first blue-box collection program was introduced in Kitchener back in 1981. The first curbside collection of household recyclables, however, was introduced in New York City more than 100 years ago – following the infamous days of Tammany Hall, perhaps the most blatantly corrupt administration ever to run New York.

By 1894, city services had degraded to the point that the citizen revolted, and the Tammany leaders were tossed out of office. The new reformist mayor, William Strong, had a tough agenda to clean up New York, both figuratively and literally. He wisely chose Colonel George E. Waring Jr. for the latter task, appointing him Commissioner of Street Cleaning.

Waring, a sanitary engineer by trade, took to the task with a vengeance. Using his Civil War experience, he fielded an army of street sweepers. Dressed all in white, they were nicknamed Waring’s White Wings. He designed a hand truck outfitted with canvas sacks so the street sweepings could be bagged for pickup. His next chore was to clear the streets of abandoned wagons and refuse so they could be effectively swept.

As Commissioner of Street Cleaning, Waring also assembled a municipal sanitation department to collect and sort household waste (including recyclable materials) in an organized manner. In 1894, Waring laid out plans for recycling the household waste of New York’s 2 million citizens. An accomplished author, Waring knew the benefit of public relations, and he outlined his grand scheme in an 1895 article titled “The Disposal of a City’s Waste” in the North American Review. Waring dissected the waste stream into four major categories: ashes, rubbish (dry waste), garbage (wet or food waste), and street sweepings (a polite term for horse manure).

Up to that point, everything had been mixed together and dumped into the Atlantic. What little recycling there was came from the private scow trimmers who loaded the garbage barges along the city’s shoreline. There were 15 of these tipping operations. Rights for sifting through the trash were bid out to the Padrones (powerful immigrant labor bosses) who paid the city nearly $90,000 in 1894 for this privilege. The Padrones’ workers sorted a host of articles, such as iron at $4.50 per ton, zinc at $1.75 per 100 pounds, paper at 25 to 40 cents per 100 pounds, along with commodities such as bones, fat, hemp twine, and old shoes. By keeping the sortable rubbish separate from the ashes and food waste, Waring hoped to capture the recycling value for his department’s budget.

The sidewalks of New York. Created by Strobridge & Co., c. 1899.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To accomplish his recycling goal, Waring felt he needed to control recyclables right from the homes, thus eliminating the “push cart man, who jangles his string of bells through the streets and carries on a more or less illicit traffic ….” By taking control of the waste trade, Waring felt the city could greatly improve sanitary conditions. If he garnered 1 cent per person a day, an estimated $7 million a year would come from the sale of recyclables.

Waring’s sortation plan was somewhat successful. The vast quantity of coal ashes became a significant source of landfill as the city’s islands expanded their shorelines. Rikers Island, on the site of New York’s famous prison, was expanded from 80 acres to 400 acres by this method. Recycled ash was also incorporated into cement cinder blocks. The wet garbage was sent to pig farmers in Secaucus, N.J., or to a composting plan in Jamaica Bay that extracted oil and made fertilizer. Horse manure seemed to be in ample supply and Waring even paid to dispose of the stable wastes from his department’s dray horses. Meanwhile, his suggestion that rubbish should be incinerated rather than dumped at seas was much appreciated by the shoreline inhabitants of New Jersey and Long Island.

The June 22, 1895, edition of Harper’s Weekly compared photos of the same street corners two years earlier to show what an incredible transformation street cleaning had effected.  Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Over time, Colonel Waring made peace with the scrap peddlers and even incorporated them into his plan – provided they were properly licensed and bonded. You can still apply for a scrap peddler’s license (a metal tag that you affix to your cart) from the city licensing bureau.

As history would have it, Tammany Hall regained power in the next election and Waring lost his post, though many of his innovations remained in place. The recycling of ash and garbage continued in a limited way until the 1950s. Two municipal incinerators were built with some frontend separation, but ocean dumping continued well into the 20th century.

Colonel Waring is, undoubtedly, the father of municipal recycling, yet history remembers him for a different innovation. As head of the Street Cleaning Commission, he also imposed alternate-side-of-the-street parking restrictions on street-sweeping day, a practice that vexes city dwellers to this day.

Tom Mele, Connecticut Metal Industries Inc. (Monroe, Conn.). Originally published in “Scrap,” May/June 2004.