An American health officer's report noted in 1889 that "appropriate places" for disposing of refuse were becoming scarcer year by year and that "the question as to some other method of disposal must soon confront us". This was before the invention of the disposable razor (1895), the paper towel (1907) and the paper drinking cup (1908).
Today, British households throw away enough rubbish every hour to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Some 25 million tonnes of litter are scattered along our streets and grass verges. Waste grows annually by 3 per cent.
Every year, Americans produce enough plastic wrap to cling-film the state of Texas; offices use enough paper to build a wall four metres high between Los Angeles and New York; and throw away enough aluminium cans to rebuild the US commercial air fleet four times over. The developing world is catching up. China discards 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year.
Rubbish creates health hazards. Britain's rat population increased by 29 per cent between 1998 and 2001. And big cities particularly are running out of space for their waste. Industry research suggests that the US has only 18 years of landfill capacity left. London's landfill sites exceeded their capacity long ago and the waste has to be sent 50 miles away to Cambridgeshire.
Now there is a new problem: electronic waste, in the form of millions of televisions, computers and other high-tech items that become obsolete. Soon, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, we shall be discarding 250 million computers and 130 million mobile phones every year. And one discarded cadmium battery can pollute 600,000 litres of water.
Extracted from Fifty Facts That Should Change the World by Jessica Williams, just published by Icon Books (£9.99)