Salt Lake City

Sustainability

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Salt Lake City’s Waste Collection History

Have you ever been curious about Salt Lake City’s garbage? Before we had convenient curbside compost, recycling, and garbage, Salt Lake City went through several different waste management systems. But even though the techniques and materials have changed, Salt Lake City’s waste management has been motivated by the need to protect public health and conserve resources.

Check out the timeline below for more interesting facts about Salt Lake City’s waste management history.

Graphic timeline of Salt Lake City's Waste Management History. Written description of the history is provided in the drop-down menu below the graphic.

Read More about Salt Lake City's Waste History

1847- 1915

In 1847, Salt Lake City residents didn’t have a lot of waste. Waste was either sent to feed pigs or burned as fuel. Other materials like metal, cloth, or leather were put to new uses. However, by the end of the 1800s, the City needed to find a way to properly collect “ashes, offal, dirt, garbage, or any other offensive matter,” as the Utah State Code suggests, that were a hazard to public sanitation.

Due to limited resources and smaller populations, waste was minimized in the late 1800s. In 1883, the Deseret News built a paper mill, replacing one in Sugar House with a new facility in the mouth of the Cottonwood Canyons. The Cottonwood Paper Mill is an example of early recycling in Utah. Although plenty of new materials were used, the Mill relied heavily on textile waste and rag collection to make their paper. The Mill burned down in 1893.

In 1892, following a scandal in which the city-contracted railway company was caught illegally dumping waste materials in Bingham County, the City Council established an official Garbage Ordinance. The Ordinance set up two garbage districts, not unlike our current collection areas, and allowed licensed “scavengers” to collect two different categories of material: ashes and non-combustibles, and liquids.

Food waste was still taken to pig farms for their consumption, other materials were often scavenged for reuse, and individuals could burn materials like leaf piles at home. The public was not always supportive of Salt Lake City’s programs, and in 1901 the Health Commissioner was compelled to report waste collection statistics to the Salt Lake Herald Republican in order to prove its efficacy:

  • Average loads of garbage hauled for 10 months in 1899: 224
  • Average loads of garbage hauled for 10 months in 1901: 290
  • Average loads of “swill and other refuse” for 10 months in 1899: 71
  • Average loads of swill and other refuse for 10 months in 1901: 118

(Compare that to our waste collection statistics today!)

It was also agreed upon that Salt Lake City needed a “garbage crematory” which was eventually built by 1902. In order to keep up with the growing need, Salt Lake City expanded the two original garbage districts into 6 areas in 1910, covering a greater area and establishing a schedule that is similar to today’s system. By 1915, Salt Lake City formalized the collection methods, shifting from licensed scavengers to contracted employees with Board of Health wagon teams.

Photograph of five horse-drawn garbage wagons operated by the Board of Health in 1915 for waste collection.
Board of Health Garbage Wagons. Used by permission, Utah Historical Society

1921- 1950

In 1921, the City’s Streets Department took over the sanitation duties of the Heath Commissioner. Following the shift, and after growing public disapproval of garbage schedule changes and inconsistent contracts with pig companies, the Commissioner of the Streets Department suggested that garbage be dumped in the lake. Luckily, thanks to a new deal with the stock company, they did not resort to this approach.  

With ups and downs, the City maintained a system of regular waste collection. During World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, waste management shifted to reflect the need to reduce waste, in particular food waste, and devote materials like metal to military efforts.

By 1946, Salt Lake City upgraded to new garbage trucks following a growing demand for better sanitation practices and more state-of-the-art approaches.

Photograph of Salt Lake City Sanitation Department garbage truck parked on unpaved street outside a small bungalow in Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake City Sanitary Department Garbage Truck photographed June 26, 1946. Used by permission, Utah Historical Society.

Other growing techniques for waste management included glass recycling (which was featured in Popular Science in 1949!). Although Salt Lake City wouldn’t get a glass recycling facility until Momentum Recycling built their plant in 2012, new recycling practices were on the rise, as were new materials.

1970-2000

By 1970, more and more Americans started to call for global action to reduce waste and protect the environment. In conjunction with the first Earth Day, the Container Corporation of America hosted a national competition to design a universal symbol for recycling. Gary Anderson won the competition with the chasing arrows, inspired by a Möbius strip, which is the ubiquitous and globally recognized recycle symbol.

In 1975, Salt Lake City opened the country’s 35th aluminum recycling facility. By 2017, the U.S. had 633 Recycling Facilities capable of processing a lot more than aluminum!

As technologies, habits, and populations changed, Salt Lake City’s waste management approaches changed, too. By 1980, the City upgraded to automated garbage trucks. Rather than dumping garbage cans into the truck manually, the automatic lift did the job, making collection safer and more efficient.

In 1993, Salt Lake City initiated a voluntary curbside recycling program that was formalized three years later. The first automated recycling system was soon to follow, offering a co-mingled single stream service in 2001.

2008-Present

Recognizing the need for waste reduction and the benefits of compost, a voluntary curbside compost collection program started in 2008. Salt Lake City soon realized that as more waste was being diverted through recycling and composting, the large garbage cans were no longer necessary for every resident. In 2009, Salt Lake City started to offer different size garbage cans for varied rates. As more and more residents began composting, Salt Lake City formally added curbside compost collection in 2010. Curbside compost is taken to the Salt Lake Valley Landfill where it is eventually resold to businesses and individuals for use in their gardens.

Between 2010 and 2012, Salt Lake City set to work on waste reduction. In 2011, a joint resolution was passed establishing zero waste goals for the city. The City aims to achieve zero waste by 2040. As part of the process of reaching zero waste, the City conducted a Waste Characterization Analysis. In 2011, only 19% of Salt Lake City’s waste was diverted from the landfill. As of 2019, Salt Lake City recycles or composts 42% of the waste collected from residents. Our goal is to reach 50% in the next several years.

When Salt Lake City’s recycling program began, the recycling was collected by a contracted hauler. In 2012, the city took over the hauling following a fee increase in 2011. The City’s waste and recycling efforts are supported through an Enterprise Fund, meaning they are funded by paid refuse fees that cannot be used for any other City services. There have been fee increases only a few times since the beginning of Salt Lake City’s curbside recycling program, one in 2011, one in 2015. (A modest increase has been proposed for 2020).

As residents became more aware of the need to recycle, the Waste & Recycling Division started the Master Recycler program in 2015. Master Recyclers are trained to in waste reduction strategies and champion recycling in our community.

With growing awareness of the dangers of plastic waste and hazardous materials, shrinking landfill space, and the demand for climate action, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski established the City’s Sustainability Department in 2016. Sustainability had previously been a division of Public Services. As a fully-fledged department, SLCgreen developed the Climate Positive 2040 Plan, which incorporated the city’s goal of achieving zero waste by 2040.