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A History of Recycling

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

By Phyllis

Recycling has a long history. It has likely been a practice throughout human history; after all, the ancients didn’t have many resources, so what they did have was precious. The first documented municipal dump was near Athens in 500BC; trash had to be taken at least a mile from the city. Centuries later, in Pompeii, the Italian city which was destroyed by the eruption of a volcano in 79 AD, archaeologists found evidence of the use of recycled materials in construction (discarded tiles, broken pottery, etc.). There is also evidence that enterprising individuals sorted through the trash to find items to resell such as bones for carving and wood for fuel. Archaeologist Allison Emmerson, who worked in Pompeii, said:

Romans reused and recycled just about everything. Recycling and reuse are natural human behaviors. For as long as humans have been using tools, we’ve also been recycling and reusing them.

A timeline has been developed by Hinton’s waste company in England. (All years quoted are AD.)

1031 Japan — First paper recycling

1690 Philadelphia – The Rittenhouse Mill used recycled fabric to make paper

1776 New York City – First metal recycling

1813 Yorkshire, England – The Shoddy Process was invented which ground up rags and clothing to be used for the production of new wool

1891 London – William Booth, the man who founded the Salvation Army, employed the poor (Our Household Salvage Brigade) to sort through trash for usable and/or sellable items

1897 New York City – First Materials Recovery Center

1904 Chicago – First aluminum recycling plant

Recycling and Conservation Catch Phrases

Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, or Do without

This phrase became popular during WWI. It is attributed to then-president Calvin Coolidge, although it was modified from his original “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Food production was down because so many men and horses were sent to Europe for the war. All those men and horses had to be fed, which led to even more food shortages. People were encouraged to have “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays”. Victory Gardens made their first appearance at this point. There were other shortages as well, such as cloth and aluminum. Making do was thought of as patriotic.

This phrase continued to be used during the Depression and the Dust Bowl. People had very little and they had to be creative. Making do became necessary for survival; it was not just patriotic anymore. People could no longer afford to buy things like shoes or clothing. Making do was essential, and nothing was wasted.

In 1945 as we were drawn into WWII, the depression ended but not the deprivation; goods were still hard to come by. Practices started during the Depression were continued: Socks were darned instead of thrown out, shoes were patched using the rubber from old tires, and aluminum foil was cleaned and reused. Food again was in short supply. A number of items were rationed: e.g., gas, clothing, shoes, tires and coffee. Recycling of such items as metal and rubber became a way of “supporting the boys”. These values did not disappear when the war was over for a lot of people. For them, frugality became a way of life. However, recycling fell by the wayside in the economic upsurge after the war.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

The 1960’s brought dramatic changes. The Hippie movement was, in part, a rebellion against the commercialism and over-consumption of the 1950’s. There was a growing awareness that the actions of individuals needed to be rerouted in the direction of the common good. One of the outshoots of this awareness was the idea that conservation was good for the environment. A new slogan replaced Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, or Do without, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle; new words, but the message was essentially still the same. I personally like the prior slogan better. It is the way I lived when I was growing up. It is much more descriptive and concrete than the new slogan.

Recycling spread again, starting with curbside pick-up of yard waste, paper, and metal. For those who lived outside the cities, recycling centers where materials could be taken were established. Ann Arbor was a pioneer in this movement, with the establishment of its first recycling center in 1970 and curbside recycling in 1977. The first Arbor Day was held on April 22, 1970 with the intent of encouraging people to plant trees and cleanup trash. Arbor Day celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020 and is still going strong.

Some states (e.g., New Jersey) have enacted laws requiring residents to recycle. Others, including Michigan, require a deposit on most bottled and canned beverages, which not only encourages taking bottles back to the store so you can get a refund (recycling), but also dramatically reducing the amount of trash on the roadways. Pressure on businesses led to changes in packaging (e.g., McDonald’s Styrofoam containers). By 1998, recycling rates were 30% nationwide (up from 10% in 1985).

For many of us, recycling has become a way of life. But recycling is only part of the solution. Don’t forget the first two parts of the slogan: Reduce and Reuse. Consuming fewer goods and reusing whatever you can have been goals since the early 1900s and are part of both the old and new slogans. Although protection of the environment through conservation has fluctuated over the years, it is more important than ever now as we face worldwide climate change.


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