A Brief History Of Recycling
Recycling is nothing new. People have been doing it for thousands of years. And not just people: Nature has been recycling plants, trees, insects, and creatures for as long as there has been nature. So, recycling is as old and as natural as the earth itself.
Why recycle? Mostly because it's the wise thing to do. Even the earliest humans understood that throwing things away was wasteful and created health problems.
Today we recycle for a variety of reasons. We understand that recycling helps conserve limited resources. Recycling also saves energy, creates jobs, and helps build a strong economy. And it reduces problems associated with litter and trash.
So, recycling is still the wise thing to do. Here is a brief history of recycling, showing how it has developed – and how it has become a way of life for millions of people.
65 million years ago
As dinosaurs die off and become extinct, they are recycled into oil and gas. The process takes place as the decaying remains of dinosaurs – along with other sea animals and plants – settle on the seabed. Over time, the animals, plants, mud, and sediment will gradually compress into sedimentary rock and change into gas and oil through heat and pressure. Millions of years later they will be mined and refined into petroleum, plastics, and thousands of other products.
Nomadic tribes begin to settle. Now that they no longer travel from place to place, leaving their garbage behind, they must learn how to dispose of their trash. The challenge of what to do with waste begins.
Religious, utilitarian, and social conventions play a major role in establishing sanitary practices in the ancient world. For example, the Jewish code of sanitary laws obligates individuals to be responsible for removal of their own waste.
Athens organizes the first municipal dumps in the western world. Local laws dictate that waste must be disposed of at least one mile from the city walls.
Japan begins the first recorded use of waste paper for making new paper. All documents and paper are recycled and repulped into new paper sold in paper shops.
The Black Death epidemic reaches Europe from Asia, spawned in part by garbage tossed onto unpaved streets and vacant spaces. The trash becomes a fertile environment for diseases carried by rat fleas. Infected humans typically died within 2 to 10 days. Before it is over, Black Death will kill hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.
The recycled paper manufacturing process is introduced. The Rittenhouse Mill near Philadelphia will make paper from fiber derived from recycled cotton and linen rags.
As America declares its independence form England, rebels turn to recycling to provide material to fight the War of Independence. Silversmith Paul Revere advertises for scrap metal of all kinds. General George Washington urges the reuse of old worn chain from frigates. And publisher Benjamin Franklin uses reconstituted scrap paper in his early printing. Patriots contribute metal, paper, cloth, and other used items to the American Revolution. Among other things, iron kettles and pots are melted down for armaments. Meanwhile, paper use grows dramatically in the new states. The Massachusetts House of Representatives passes a decree requiring that all towns appoint an individual to receive rags for the mills.
The first mill to produce paper from material other than cotton and linen rags is built in England. Matthias Koops receives the first patent for “extracting printing and writing ink from printed and written paper, and converting the paper from which the ink is extracted into pulp, and making thereof paper fit for writing, printing, and other purposes.” Two years later, the Koops mill declared bankruptcy and closed.
Peter Durand is granted a patent by King George III of England for his idea of preserving food in “vessels of glass, pottery, tin, or other metals or fit materials” launching the commercially processed food industry.
The peddler trade, among America’s earliest entrepreneurships, begins when men with backpacks and horsedrawn carts collect and recycle anything that has resale value. These merchants, usually impoverished immigrants in the New World, are direct ancestors of some of today’s successful scrap-recycling business families.
The California Gold Rush and the Civil War create an urgent need for food that could be preserved for long periods of time and transported over great distances. Travelers heading westward to open new settlements took with them foods packed in metal cans by canners in the East. The U.S. canning business will boom from an output of five million cans in 1849 to thirty million five years later.
The Salvation Army is founded in London, England, and begins collecting, sorting, and recycling unwanted goods. The organization’s “Household Salvage Brigades” employ the unskilled poor to recover discarded materials. The Salvation Army and its resource recovery activities migrate to the United States in the 1890’s.
Curbside recycling begins in Baltimore, Maryland. Meanwhile in Nottingham, England, a new device called “the destructor” provides the first systematic incineration of municipal waste.
The Sierra Club is founded in San Francisco by renowned conservationist John Muir. It is the first environmental organization.
New York City appoints Colonel George E. Waring as street-cleaning commissioner. Known as the “Apostle of Cleanliness,” Waring administers the first practical, comprehensive system of refuse management in the United States. The system requires households to sort organic wastes, paper, ashes, and street sweepings into separate containers for collection. Waring outfits the proud sweepers and drivers in smart-looking white uniforms. He even helps New York profit from source separation by reselling recovered materials.
New York City creates a materials recovery facility where trash is sorted at “picking yards” and separated into various grades of paper, metals, and carpet. Burlap bags, twine, rubber, and even horse hair are also sorted for recycling and reuse.
The nations first aluminum can recycling plants open in Chicago and Cleveland.
An article in Cosmopolitan magazine, “The Chemical House That Jack Built,” extols the manner in which “every possible substance we use and throw away comes back as new and different material – a wonderful cycle of transformation created by scientists’ skill.”
Recyclers and reuse programs adopt the phrase “Waste As Wealth” to describe the profits to be made from sorting and reselling items found in household trash.
The Chicago city jail initiates a unique recycling experiment as it puts prisoners to work collecting and sorting waste materials.
1916 – 1918
Due to shortages of raw materials during World War I, the federal government creates the Waste Reclamation Service with the motto “Don’t Waste Waste – Save It.” The agency advertises extensively to encourage the public to save old rags and wastepaper. The service also advocates scientific management of the nation’s water, timber, land, and minerals – early steps in the evolution of progressive programs to protect resources for future generations.
Used paper becomes a valuable commodity and, for the first time in America, thousands of tons of old books, newspapers, and business papers are recycled by paper mills. Meanwhile, Ms. Othemon Stevens initiates an ambitious tin foil collection program in Los Angeles and becomes the sole representative of the Red Cross Salvage Bureau.
Landfilling – reclaiming wetlands with layers of garbage, ash, and dirt – is introduced and becomes a popular disposal method.
The Municipal Garbage Department of Sacramento, California, increases its annual revenue by selling the city’s wastepaper to an independent paper company. The new revenue allows the department to increase garbage collectors wages by 25 cents a day.
The first aluminum can for beverages is manufactured by a brewer in Newark, New Jersey. The can weighs three ounces. Sixty years later, a process called “light weighting” will reduce aluminum beverage cans weight to just one-half ounce.
1939 – 1945
Thousands of tons of material are recycled to support U.S. and Allied troops during World War II. The war Production Board’s Salvage Division is responsible for promoting nationwide recycling. More than 20,000 salvage committees, 400,000 volunteers, and millions of citizens pledge to “Get in the Scrap” to help the war effort. The salvage of tin, rubber, aluminum, and other materials is taken very seriously. Citizens contribute everything from doorknobs to girdles to help build the military machine. The rhetoric is strong: “If you have even a few pounds of scrap metal in your home you are aiding the Axis,” asserts one wartime magazine ad. It is said that salvaging metal straps from corsets alone saved enough metal to build two warships.
The Boston General Salvage Committee helps the war effort with scrap drives – advertising the campaign on streetcars and billboards, and with informational circulars to homes. “Special Salvage Days,” a children’s scrap metal contest involving schools, exhibits in grocery stores, and a volunteer women’s group known as the “Salvage Commandos” are also used to enlist support for the program.
In a productive public-private partnership to help the government’s war effort, the International Harvester Company coordinates an effort using its 10,000 dealerships nationwide to collect much of the estimated three million tons of ferrous scrap metal lying idle on American farms. In Chicago, the Herald & American newspaper enlists the aid of its 3,000 carrier boys known as the “Junior Salvage Commandos” to make personal house-to-house calls in search of scrap iron.
Market acceptance of frozen orange concentrate leads to the expansion of the frozen foods industry, with associated increases in packaging.
The August 1 issue of Life magazine offers a two-page article on “Throwaway Living.” With a photo of a family cheerfully tossing dozens of disposables into the air, it celebrated these products’ ability to “cut down on household chores.” Consumers are increasingly sold on the idea that single-use items are necessities of a modern lifestyle. Ease and convenience become the two most desirable qualities in product marketing. A negative side-effect: parks, forests, and highways are littered with trash.
The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes a guide to landfilling, calling for compacting trash and covering it daily with a layer of soil to guard against rodents and odors. Later standards will call for new landfills to have a liner on the bottom and liquid collection systems that pump out water for treatment, and to collect methane gas, which is produced as waste decomposes.
The all-aluminum can is introduced. Recognizing the value of used aluminum cans as a raw material for making new cans, the aluminum industry will soon begin creating a massive system for recycling and redeeming used beverage containers. U.S. collection will grow from 1.2 billion cans in 1972 to more than 62 billion cans in 1995 through curbside recycling programs and more than 10,000 recycling centers.
The Solid Waste Disposal Act is passed by Congress, the first significant recognition of trash as a national issue. The primary thrust of the act is to “initiate and accelerate” a national research and development program and to assist state and local governments with their disposal programs.
The first national Earth Day is held on April 22. The brainchild of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, it is inspired by “teach-ins” held to educate citizens about the Vietnam War. An estimated 20 million Americans celebrate at festivals and fairs throughout the U.S. One focus is recycling, which begins to evolve into a mainstream movement, as recycling and litter clean-up programs spring up throughout the country. Schools, religious institutions, environmental organizations, and youth groups take the lead in these efforts.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is created as a government response to the public’s growing environmental concerns, and its Office of Solid Waste begins examining the problems caused by generating and disposing waste. Meanwhile, Congress passes the Resource Recovery Act to shift the emphasis of federal involvement from disposal to recycling, resource recovery, and the conversion os waste into energy.
Oregon passes the first “bottle bill” in the U.S., requiring consumers to pay a deposit on bottles and cans, to be redeemed when the container is recycled.
Meanwhile, aluminum industry efforts lead to a record 53 million pounds of aluminum being recycled this year. Twenty-five years later, Americans will exceed that amount every week, with some 119,282 cans recycled every minute nationwide.
The polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle is patented by chemist Nathaniel Wyeth, brother of distinguished American painter Andrew Wyeth. The bottles will soon begin replacing glass bottles for some uses. Recycling will begin in 1977, though it will be years before a significant number of recycling facilities accept PET bottles. Recycling efforts will get a boost in 1991, when Coca-Cola introduces the first recycled-PET soda bottle. PET recycling will grow from 8 million pounds in 1979 to 622 million in 1995.
Direct-mail advertising begins to take off, with more than $5 billion spent to promote credit cards, magazines, and hundreds of other products. Within 20 years, the industry will grow to more than $100 billion, with more than 70 billion pieces of mail delivered annually, about one in seven of which will be recovered for recycling.
The Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is passed. Among other things, it mandates that landfills become more closely monitored. The law emphasizes recycling and conserving energy and other resources, and launches the nation’s hazardous waste management program.
“Choices for Conservation,” a report of the Federal Resource Conservation Committee, warns: “We have no cause for complacency about the rate at which we consume our natural endowment. Our materials-use practices affect environmental policy, energy consumption, waste generation, the balance of trade, and other important concerns. Individuals, private companies, local government, and the federal government all make choices every day which affect our use and conservation of resources.”
California enacts the California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, placing a deposit on aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles. The program pushes the state’s overall beverage container recycling rate to 80% by the mid 1990s, with more than 10 billion cans and bottles recycled annually. Meanwhile, Rhode Island becomes the first state to pass a mandatory recycling law for aluminum and steel (“tin”) cans, glass, plastic (PET and HDPE) bottles, and newspapers. Residents and businesses must now separate these recyclables from their trash.
The Mobro, a barge carrying garbage from New York, tries unsuccessfully to get rid of its load in six states and three other countries. The barge travels 6,000 miles for six months before it is finally allowed to dump its load, consisting primarily of paper, back in New York. The event is widely published and brings new interest in recycling as an alternative to landfilling. In an unrelated incident a year later, hypodermic needles and other medical waste wash up on East Coast beaches. Lake Michigan????? The media begins referring to the situations collectively as a “solid waste crisis.”
Government purchasing policies and technological breakthroughs advance paper recycling. California state government allows a price preference for paper with at least 50% recycled and 10% postconsumer content. By the early ‘90s, all 50 states adopt legislation or executive orders favoring recycled paper. In 1993 President Clinton orders federal agencies to buy paper with at least 20% postconsumer content.
Arizona archeologist William Rathje begins the Garbage Project in which he leads students in “mining” local landfills to learn about modern civilization. Among the findings: Trash doesn’t break down in landfills. Students unearth decades-old newspapers that are intact, and bananas that are still yellow.
The 20th anniversary of Earth Day marks a pinnacle of the modern environmental movement as millions of citizens worldwide participate in environmental events. Public opinion polls sow environmental protection as a top concern. 50 Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, The Green Consumer, and other bestsellers join with network TV specials and magazine cover stories to bring a renewed focus on recycling and other conservation efforts.
Collection of recyclables is so prolific that the challenge becomes finding markets for the materials being collected. A new emphasis is placed on “closing the loop” – buying products made from recycled material.
California state government mandates municipalities to reduce their waste stream by 25% by the year 1995 and 50% by the year 2000. The California Integrated Waste Management Board is established (by Assembly Bill 939 in 1989) to administer the program.
The Environmental Defense Fund, National Recycling Coalition, Environmental Media Association, and other prominent environmental organizations, along with state government agencies in California, Washington, and elsewhere, begin promoting buying recycled-content products as key to the continued success of recycling in the U.S.
The National Football League teams up with the California Department of Conservation, the city of Pasadena, and the Rose Bowl to implement the first comprehensive recycling program at Super Bowl XXVII.
California observes its first Recycle Week in mid-April. Meanwhile, California Governor George Deukmejian introduces a litter prevention campaign targeting the youthful litterbug. The ad line “Learn to hold it until you get to the can. Don’t litter.”
Americans recycle a record 47.6 billion soft drink containers, an increase of 500 million over the previous year. Aluminum cans are recycled at a rate of 63% in the U.S. and 80% in California. There are more than 10,000 recycling centers nationwide and at least 4,000 curbside collection programs. There are more than 400 papers in all grades.
Evidence grows that recycling helps create jobs. For example, the city of San Jose estimates it could cerate 775 jobs by recycling 624,000 tons of material. A study by the California Integrated Waste Management Board calculates that diverting 50% of the state’s waste stream from landfills could create 40,000 new jobs by the year 2000. The California department of Conservation publishes Good, Green Jobs, documenting how companies are creating economic growth through recycling and other environmental initiatives.
Californians achieve a milestone diverting 25% of their waste, meeting the requirements of state law. The California Integrated Waste Management Board intensifies its efforts to help communities, businesses, and families to reduce, reuse, and recycle even more in order to reach the historic 50% reduction by 2000.
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