At the time of Milwaukee’s founding as three separate communities, the concept of “garbage” did not exist in the way we think of it today. Household wastes such as digestive products were deposited in privy vaults, food remains were composted or fed to family hogs or chickens, and firewood ash was either used for soap and candle making by the family or collected by a local manufacturer of such products. Packaging of store-bought goods was usually in plain brown paper that was reused for writing, storage, or even home repair. As most homes had gardens and domestic flocks or herds, and even business owners used waste generated on commercial properties as additional feedstock, garbage disposal was a minor consideration. It was only several decades after Milwaukee’s incorporation and growth that the city began to deal with garbage in a systematic fashion. As in other American cities, the solutions depended on the street infrastructure to route unwanted waste to distant dumps, landfills, and incinerators.
By the latter half of the nineteenth century, Milwaukee had a waste problem, for several reasons. The replacement of wood fuel with coal; the increase in the availability of manufactured goods, with their concomitant packaging; and the decrease in both lot size and the frequency of family hog and poultry ownership led to the accumulation of waste material in the streets, alleys, and back lots of Milwaukee. When householders separated these waste products there was little difficulty; “swill children”—the offspring of poor immigrants—collected food waste, animal manure, and any other waste which might have a purpose for their own family’s use. When the products were combined in a single heap, however, the extreme acidity of the coal ash made the organic waste unusable, so the material remained on the property, increasing in stench with each day. When rains came, the waste mixed with the mud on the unpaved streets and alleys, generating “a suppurating odor that assaulted the senses.”
By 1875, the problem of rotting garbage was too great to be addressed in the informal fashion that had been in place until that time. With the addition of horse manure (on the order of 25 tons per day), the accumulation of waste and the prevailing miasmatic theory of disease led citizens to demand that something be done.
The new Health Commissioner, Dr. James Johnson, convinced a reluctant Common Council to spend city funds collecting and disposing of the waste. The council agreed as long as the choice of whether to collect was left in the hands of the individual wards. In 1875, five of thirteen wards applied to participate; by 1878 none did, due to the poor quality of the collection process and the difficulty of disposing of the waste once collected. Many homeowners felt a loyalty to the “swill children” and refused to allow the city collectors to pick up their waste. The contractors needed full carts with high levels of organics in order to sell their collection to farmers; lacking access to such material, they avoided entire neighborhoods or picked through waste piles to select only the most desirable material. No one got what they wanted, and the program was discontinued in 1878.
A hot summer in that year renewed complaints about the odor. The Common Council concluded that the earlier problems had been due to allowing each ward to act individually. Instead, it put out bids for city-wide collection, a practice that remained in effect until 1886. This failed to alleviate the issues, as homeowners complained that collectors dropped unwanted material in the nearest vacant lot, failed to pick up from every house, and scattered waste around back lots when they did collect. As the outlying areas where the garbage was dumped began to be more densely populated, residents there began to complain about being used as a dumping ground. By 1886, the city ordered an end to dumping within city limits.
At this point, the problem shifted from removing the waste from individual lots to the disposal of the entire collection. With the outlying districts refusing to accept it, garbage remained uncollected for weeks in back lots, alleys, and streets. The city had passed laws forbidding the practice of individual collection and the keeping of hogs that consumed some waste, so a return to earlier policies was impossible. A large-scale solution was needed. Two entrepreneurs convinced the Health Commissioner that incineration of garbage was the solution. The Phoenix Garbage Cremator Company won a city contract for the collection and disposal of all the waste; for the first time, the city paid for both.
During the months while the incinerator was under construction, garbage was dumped into Lake Michigan. This practice generated further complaints. The dumping site was up-current from the water intake, and there were frequent reports of tap water contaminated with refuse. The complaints did not stop with the completion of the incinerator. Located on the west side of the city, the furnace failed to burn the refuse completely, resulting in a “killing odor…with strength enough to paralyze the man in the moon.” The furnace’s designer committed suicide after his failure to solve the difficulty. A second facility that dried the waste before it was burned was completed a few days later. The new facility produced better combustion, and complaints about the waste disposal diminished. Further additions to the facility included the introduction of a Merz process that rendered grease from the waste and allowed the cremains to serve as dry fertilizer. Within days of this process being implemented, a group of west-side businessmen calling themselves the “Anti-Stench Committee” petitioned to have the facility shut down. This was done during the summer months; refuse was again thrown into the lake. Processing resumed in the autumn of 1890, but it was clear a better solution needed to be found, including relocating any future plant.
In the spring of 1891, the city contracted with the Wisconsin Rendering Company to collect the city’s waste and incinerate it at a plant in Ozaukee County, 14 miles north of the (then) city limits. This consortium later proved to have close financial ties to many of the council members who voted for its contract. The company began to collect and process Milwaukee’s refuse in August 1892; if the plant created odors, they were too far north of the city for citizen complaints. Local carters collected waste three times a week, moved the refuse to scows in the harbor, which then transported it north to the rendering plant, where it was burned. By 1894, complaints were coming in that the carters were remiss in their collection and that large amounts of waste, including dead animals, were either improperly loaded onto the scows or dumped from them into the harbor. However, a smallpox epidemic at this time diverted the Health Commissioner’s attention away from garbage. It was not until 1896 that the city began to address these complaints.
The City Engineer agreed with the health commissioner that garbage was being dumped improperly. The plant could handle only 60 to 70 tons a day, while Milwaukeeans disposed of 80 tons of refuse daily. Even though Health Department employees testified to the dumping, the Council (some of whose members were financially tied to the plant) blamed the Health Commissioner. His proposed remedy was to plan for a city-owned disposal plant using the newer Holthaus system that reputedly resulted in a more complete combustion of materials. Despite many aldermen’s financial ties to the Merz plant, the council voted in July 1897 to build the newer facility. The Wisconsin Rendering Company reacted by moving to tie up sources of capital that might be used to buy bonds for building the municipal plant. Although this resulted in a stalemate until funding could be arranged, publicity about these backroom machinations led to citizens’ demands, both through the Municipal League and individually, that the city-owned plant be built. Worried about the accusation of “creeping socialism,” however, the council voted to give a different contractor the bid to build a plant. In March of 1898, the mayor vetoed the bid, and the city returned to having no method of garbage disposal.
The Health Commissioner devised an interim plan to bury the waste in suburban communities that would accept it, saving the taxpayers $2000 a month. With 1898 being an election year, the failure of the Council and Mayor to solve the ongoing problem of garbage disposal led to the election of David Rose and his aldermanic coalition that remained in control until 1910. Ironically elected on a “reform” ticket, the Rose administration proved to be the most machine-like of Milwaukee governments. Yet the election brought together the Progressives and Socialists in a coalition that determined the necessity of municipal ownership. The city also moved control over the plant and collection to the Department of Public Works, rather than the Health Department.
The two new city incinerators began operating in March of 1902. Located on Jones Island, the plants’ odors largely diffused eastward over the lake. Daily collections were put on scows and ferried across the harbor to the facility. Refuse was temporarily buried in winter, when the river froze, until the waters thawed; by 1907 the transportation problem was severe enough that the idea of building a larger incinerator on the mainland was introduced. The capacity of the Jones Island plants was 120 tons/day, but garbage collection exceeded 200 tons a day. The need for newer, more efficient furnaces was evident. The Erie Street Garbage Incineration Plant opened in 1910 and operated until 1955. While the Health Commissioner had weighed in on the better hygiene associated with incineration rather than burial, the construction of the Erie Street furnaces completed the transfer of design and oversight of refuse collection and disposal to the Department of Public Works and the purview of engineers.
In 1955, the capacity of the Erie Street furnaces was insufficient to deal with the greatly increased amounts of waste now being generated by a larger city population. While coal ash, formerly a major component, was no longer much in evidence, increased paper, plastic, and food waste constituted the majority of refuse. Burial in city-owned landfills located on the peripheries became the new method of disposal, which remained in place until the introduction of recycling in the 1980s. Recycling began as a voluntary program, with residents permitted to recycle glass, aluminum, and other metal products, and some forms of paper and plastic. The passage of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976 provided funds to states to establish their own recycling programs; Wisconsin followed in 1990 with the Wisconsin Waste Reduction and Recycling Law, which made recycling mandatory for residential, commercial, and industrial sites.
In 1990, the first year that single-sort recycling became mandatory in Milwaukee, recyclables constituted 17% of the refuse stream in Milwaukee; by 2013, this had risen to 32%, with an estimated equal amount of potential recyclables entering the main garbage stream. The 32% constituted 2,500 tons of materials, including metals, plastics, papers, and glass. The city contracts with businesses to sort and process the materials in the recycling stream; as of 2015, revenue gained from reformulating these products covers about half the costs of collection and reworking. Multi-unit residential, commercial, and industrial properties have the option of processing their own wastes, contracting with the city for removal, or contracting with a third party. The largest private contractor operating in Milwaukee is currently Waste Management.
Like Milwaukee, suburban municipalities also provided the removal of waste through garbage and recycling collection. They contract with private scavengers to haul waste from residences for more permanent disposal. In Glendale, the installation of garbage disposals in kitchen sinks is mandatory, so some waste is handled by the water system. Most of the Milwaukee metropolitan area’s garbage ends up in suburban landfills.
- ^ Charles D. Goff, “The Swill Children of Milwaukee,” Historical Messenger of the Milwaukee County Historical Society (March 1960): 9-11.
- ^ Goff, “The Swill Children of Milwaukee,” 13.
- ^ Milwaukee Sentinel, January 22, 1869, p. 1.
- ^ Milwaukee Sentinel, July 3, 1878, p. 8.
- ^ Milwaukee Health Department, Annual Report, 1877, p. 24.
- ^ Milwaukee Health Department, Annual Report, 1878, p. 238.
- ^ Milwaukee Sentinel, December 9, 1879, pp. 4-5.
- ^ Milwaukee Sentinel, November 4, 1886, p. 4.
- ^ Milwaukee Common Council Proceedings, various dates from January 17-September 22, 1887, pp. 69-522, passim.
- ^ Judith Walzer Leavitt, The Healthiest City: Milwaukee and the Politics of Health Reform (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), 121.
- ^ Milwaukee Sentinel, September 25, 1887, p. 4.
- ^ Milwaukee Sentinel, July 16, 1890, p. 1; Milwaukee Common Council Proceedings, August 11, 1890, p. 289.
- ^ Laws of Wisconsin, 1891, p. 246; Milwaukee Journal, April 21, 1891, p. 3.
- ^ Judith W. Leavitt, “Politics and Public Health: The Smallpox Epidemic in Milwaukee 1894-1895,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 50 (1976): 553-568.
- ^ Leavitt, The Healthiest City, 142.
- ^ Milwaukee Health Department, Annual Report, 1896, p. 58; Milwaukee Sentinel, August 16, 1896, p. 1.
- ^ Milwaukee Sentinel, June 18, 22, 23, 1897.
- ^ Milwaukee Sentinel, July 11-25, 1897.
- ^ Milwaukee Health Department, Annual Report, 1897, pp. 53-55.
- ^ Milwaukee Health Department, Annual Report, 1897, pp. 152-53.
- ^ Leavitt, The Healthiest City, 150.
- ^ Milwaukee Health Department, Annual Report, 1902, p. 127.
- ^ Engineering News 59 (1908), quoted in Milwaukee Health Department, Annual Report, 1907, p. 13.
- ^ Leavitt, The Healthiest City, 153-54.
- ^ Carl V. Patton and David Sawicki, “Experimenting with Alternative Solid Waste Collection Methods,” in Basic Methods of Policy Analysis and Planning (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1986), 419-428.
- ^ Wis. Statutes 287.07.
- ^ City of Milwaukee Recycling website, accessed August 6, 2015.
For Further Reading
Goff, Charles D., “The Swill Children of Milwaukee,” Historical Messenger of the Milwaukee County Historical Society (March 1960): 9-11.
Leavitt, Judith. The Healthiest City: Milwaukee and the Politics of Health Reform. Madison, WI: University Of Wisconsin Press, 1982.
Leavitt, Judith W., “Politics and Public Health: The Smallpox Epidemic in Milwaukee 1894-1895.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 50 (1976): 553-568.
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Garbage in the Suburbs
Like many entries in the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, the information and analysis in this entry depend on the existing scholarship on the topic in question, in this case the years of research and writing by author Kate Foss for her University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Urban Studies doctoral dissertation and book Hard Water. We hope that making that research accessible here will prompt further work. For example, careful readers of this entry, as well as the entry on Landfills, will note that while suburban communities are mentioned as dumping grounds for Milwaukee’s waste, we have little current scholarship on how suburbs faced similar issues to those confronted by the City of Milwaukee in disposing of garbage. That subject is a topic still waiting for a writer.
- ^ Kathleen Foss-Mollan, “Perceptions of Need: Politics, the Media and Water Policy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1870-1995” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1997).
- ^ Kate Foss-Mollan, Hard Water: Politics and Water Supply in Milwaukee, 1870-1995 (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2001).