A Brief History on Recycling
More than a century ago, recycling wasn't a thing, but people did it instinctively.
During the 1800s, there were no recycling bins, no sorting, or recycling trucks. Although recycling didn’t exist, people were much better at it. People recycled far more than we do now. If the elbows in a shirt wore out, you’d take the sleeves off, turn them inside out, and voila: new shirt. If a dress went out of style, you added new buttons or sent it back to the dressmaker to fashion a trendier dress. Eventually, the fabric would be turned into a quilt or a rag rug or just a rag.
Before there was municipal solid waste disposal, stuff would pile up in your house if you didn’t reuse it. In addition, people who made things had an understanding of the value of material goods that we don’t have at all. Literally, if everything you wore, sat on, or used in your house was something you made or your mother or uncle or the guy down the street made, you had a very different sense of value of material goods.
The earliest 19th-century equivalent to modern-day recycling? The ragman. The ragman went from house to house to buy old cloth for an international trade in rags to make into paper. Railroads largely put an end to the door-to-door rag collecting.
When garbage pickup started in the late 19th century, many cities separated reusable trash from garbage designated for a landfill. Just like today, workers sorted via conveyor belts as early as 1905. The cities sold the reusable trash to industries. And many individuals saved their organics to feed to animals.
But by the 1920s, source separation wasn’t happening. By then, not much was being recycled apart from metal at scrapyards.
During World War II people recycled nylons, tin cans, cooking fats and even the tin in toothpaste tubes for the war effort. And by the 1960s, the first recycling programs linked to people’s concern for the environment started popping up. As the environmental movement began to take hold on a national scale, recycling was seen as a personal manifestation of helping the environment.
Beyond the do-gooders, though, most people in the throw-away society of the time didn’t think too much about preservation or reducing use...until landfills started filling up in the 1970’s. Landfilling was the most popular form of disposal after World War II, and recycling is a way to reduce tipping the balance. It took mass out of the waste stream, preserving landfill space. Recycling began to have an economic and strategic role, different from just saving the environment.
The concept of Zero Waste took hold in the new millennium, challenging people to produce less waste by considering the front end of the problem—the disposable products people use instead of just the back end. Most waste-producing companies that were happy to support recycling didn’t hop on board the Zero Waste idea. Producing goods that leave a small environmental footprint is extremely challenging and requires a complete culture shift.