History of Recycling

Despite common beliefs, the history of recycling goes a long way back.

Recycling is not a new concept. The practice of recycling has been around for thousands of years. However, it has been affected predominantly by supply and demand, much as it is today.

Historic Times

Recycling has a history that dates back to the historic times. As early as 400 BC (and even earlier), people have been recycling.

For example, archaeological evidence indicates that glass from the imperial Byzantine times were being recycled in the ancient city of Sagalassos, located in current day Turkey.

There is also evidence that early Romans recycled bronze coins into statues that could be sold at a higher monetary value than the original coins.

In hard times (eg. wartime), metals from everything like jewelry and coins were being melted for weapons or other necessary goods. Pottery recycling operations have been uncovered as well.

Archaeologist also deduced from waste remnants about the history of recycling – that recycling was a popular practice during times of distress.

For example, less waste remains were found where there were also other indicators of distress such as famine, war and widespread illness. During these times of distress, new materials might have been scarce, making the recycling of waste necessary.

Pre-industrial Times

As for the history of recycling prior to the industrial revolution, recycling and general household re-using was actually a commonplace practice.

Before mass production flooded the market with loads of materials and products, it was generally cheaper to reuse items as opposed to buying new ones.

And when materials did become worn beyond further use, recyclable ones (eg. glass, aluminum) were recycled into new items.

For example, evidence shows that scrap bronze and other metals were collected in Europe and melted down for perpetual reuse. In Britain, dust and ash from wood and coal fires were being downcycled as a base material in brick making.

In other words, during these times in the history of recycling, recycling was mainly motivated by the economic benefits of using recycled feedstock instead of virgin material.

Industrial Times

The history of recycling took a turn during the times of industrialization.

As it became easier and cheaper to produce goods (through technological innovation and mass production), it also became easier and sometimes cheaper to throw used items away.

Nonetheless, anytime there was a massive economic slump, people would look for ways to make the most of what they had. For example, during the Great Depression, people reused and recycled materials because they could not afford to buy news items or acquire virgin materials.

World War II (WWII)

A highlight in the history of recycling was during World War II.

During the war, financial constraints and massive material shortage due to war efforts made it necessary for our ancestors to reuse goods and recycle materials.

The war efforts demanded much of the resources, leaving little for the homefront. Some items (eg. metal, rubber and even certain food items) had to be rationed as they were needed overseas at the warfront. It became necessary for most homes to recycle their waste, as recycling offered an extra source of materials.

There was also a general patriotism in recycling then.

There were massive campaigns in many countries, urging people to donate metals and conserve fiber, in contribution to war efforts and as an expression of patriotism. Recycling materials to be used at home also meant more resources could be sent overseas at the warfront. This in turn meant a greater chance of victory at war.

Post-WWII Recycling

As with the other times, after the WWII period, the history of recycling was greatly influenced by economic reasons.

When the war ended, resource conservation programs established during the war were continued in some countries without an abundance of natural resources, such as Japan. However, for other countries such as the USA, recycling efforts were largely forgotten.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when landfilling became a cheap way to dispose trash, recycling was less popular.

Nevertheless, in the 1970s, recycling became more popular again and drop-off recycling centers were established. The environmental movement had started since 1960s, and there was greater public awareness and rising environmental consciousness.

A milestone in the history of recycling was the introduction of the universal symbol for recycling.

In the form of a Mobius strip, the symbol was designed by Gary Anderson in the late 1960s, after a Chicago-based recycled-container company sponsored an art contest to raise environmental awareness.

Since then, the triangle has been used to represent the recycling hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle.

The increased interest in recycling in the 1970s was also a result of rising energy costs. Significant savings were achieved through recycling.

For example, recycling aluminum used only 5% of the energy required with virgin production. There were also significant energy savings when recycling glass, paper and metals as compared to extracting the raw materials.

In the early 1970s, Rose Rowan started with the idea of towing a “recycling” trailer behind a waste management vehicle to collect trash and recyclable items at the same time. This innovation allowed for the introduction of curbside collection in the late 1980s and 1990s, which made it even easier for people to recycle.

For the United States, the first city to mandate recycling was Woodbury, New Jersey.

Other towns and cities soon followed suit, and today many cities in the U.S. make recycling a requirement (read more about the recycling practices today in the various countries).

The ultimate recycler

All that said, throughout the history of recycling (and since the birth of the world), the ultimate recycler is none other than Mother Nature!

If not for her wonderful magic in the composting process, we would all be covered in leaves and other dead organic matter!

Read other interesting historical facts on recycling contributed by our readers.

Most Interesting Historical Facts On Recycling

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What Other Visitors Have Shared

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A World War II Jingle I heard on Radio (New York City) 
I was between ten and fourteen during WWII and would love to know if anyone else remembers this jingle. I know I didn't imagine it! Stop! Don't throw …

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