When did Recycling Begin?

“It makes a big difference to recycle. It makes a big difference to use recycled products.
It makes a big difference to reuse things, to not use the paper cup
and each time you do, that’s a victory.
~ Emily Deschanel ~

Most of us have recycled at some time or the other, and recycling has seen its ups and downs popularity-wise over the years. We tend to think that recycling is a fairly new thing, but in actual fact the history of recycling is a very long one…

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.

Historic Times

Recycling has a history that dates back to the historic times – in 500 BC Athens organised the first municipal dump programme – local laws dictated that waste had to be disposed of at least one mile outside the city walls. 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.

Archaeological evidence indicates that glass from the imperial Byzantine times (as early as 400 BC) was being recycled in the ancient city of Sagalassos, located in what is today known as Turkey.

During war-time, anything metal, such as coins and jewelry, were melted down to make weapons.

Archaeologist have also deduced from waste remnants (including recycled pottery remnants) that recycling was a popular practice during times of distress. This is borne out by the fact that less waste remains were found where there were also other indicators of distress such as famine, war and widespread illness.

Pre-industrial Period

History shows that prior to the industrial revolution, recycling and general household re-using was actually a commonplace practice, motivated by the economic benefits of using recycled stock instead of virgin material.

Before mass production flooded the market with loads of products and various new materials, it was cheaper to reuse items than to buy new ones, and when items did become too worn to use, recyclable ones (e.g. glass, aluminum) were recycled into new items.

In 1031, Japan began the first ever recorded reuse of waste paper – all documents and paper are recycled and re-pulped into new paper.

The remade paper became the sole commodity of the paper-shops (kamiya) and was known by the name of kamiya-gami, literally paper-shop paper.

The reclaimed material used in the making of the kamiya-gami was charged with ink and pigment and therefore the paper manufactured from the used material was of a grey tone.

Evidence shows that in Europe, scrap bronze and other metals were collected 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.

Industrial Times

The Industrial Revolution, now also known as the First Industrial Revolution, was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840.

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.

The Salvation Army was founded in London, England in 1865 – the unskilled poor were utilised to recover discarded materials which were then sorted and recycled.

In the 1900s, the phrase “Waste as Wealth” was used to describe the revenue to be earned from sorting and reselling items found in household trash.

During World War I – 1916 to 1918 – the US Federal government created the Waste Reclamation Service with the motto “Don’t Waste Waste – Save It.”

That all being said however, anytime there was a massive economic slump such as the Great Depression, people would look for ways to make the most of what they had because they could not afford to buy news items or acquire virgin materials.

World War II (WWII)

World War II became a highlight in the history of recycling as there was financial constraints and massive material shortage due to war efforts which demanded much of the resources.

There were massive global campaigns urging people to donate metals and conserve fibre, in contribution to war efforts and as an expression of patriotism.

Recycling materials for use at home meant more resources could be sent to those fighting the war at the front. Goods such as nylon, rubber and various metals were rationed and recycled to help support the war effort.

Some items (e.g. metal, rubber and certain food items) had to be rationed as they were needed at the war front. Out of necessity, most homes began to recycle their waste, which offered an extra source of materials.

Post-WWII Recycling

After the WWII period, the history of recycling was greatly influenced by economic reasons. In the 1940s and 1950s, when land-filling became a cheap way to dispose of trash, recycling was less popular.

While resource conservation programs established during the war were discontinued by most countries, recycling continued in some countries without an abundance of natural resources, such as Japan.

Across the world, ease and convenience become the two most desirable qualities in product marketing, unfortunately but inevitably leading to parks, forests and highways becoming littered with garbage.

However, the environmental movement which had started in the 1960s did still create greater public awareness and rising environmental consciousness. In the 1970s, recycling became more popular again and drop-off recycling centres were established.

In 1970, the Mobius Loop, designed by Gary Anderson after a Chicago-based recycled-container company sponsored an art contest to raise environmental awareness, was introduced as the symbol for Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This symbol indicates that a product can be recycled, but not necessarily that it has been itself produced from recycled materials. Sometimes it has a percentage figure in the middle, indicating how much of the product comes from recycled materials.

In 1970, the first Earth Day brought national attention to the problem of increasing waste and the importance of recycling. Earth Day was founded in the U.S by U.S Senator Gaylord Nelson and globally by entrepreneur John McConnell.

Every year in excess of 1,000,000,000 people and almost every school-aged child in over 192 countries take part in annual Earth Day celebrations on 22nd April to promote conserving our environment by protecting, recycling, cleaning and innovating.

In the early 1970s, Rose Rowan came up 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, and this has become an international movement.

In the early 1970s, Rose Rowan came up 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, and this has become an international movement.

In 1996, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a new goal of 35% for recycling, and in Germany, Elopak and SINTEF teamed up to sell the first infra-red sorting machine.

The EPA confirmed a link between global warming and waste in 2000, showing that reducing our garbage and recycling cuts down greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2006 Dell Computer began offering a free recycling service for their products—no additional purchases required—sparking the movement of E-waste recycling.

In the next week or two we will post an article about the differences between Recycling, Upcycling, and Repurposing.


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