INFOGRAPHIC: The History of Recycling


Recycling has been around in one form or another for centuries, but what do you really know about it?

Archaeologists have found evidence of recycling that took place around or perhaps earlier than 400 B.C. Recycling has developed in many ways since then, however, some of the most significant changes have taken place just in the past couple hundred years or so, due to some major historical events.

Industrial Revolution Era

Recycling was surprisingly routine prior to the Industrial Revolution. Mass production was far from the norm, which meant it was cheaper to reuse your materials than to buy new ones.

However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s recycling waned as the Industrial Revolution made its way across the globe. The introduction of machine-based manufacturing dropped production costs significantly, and allowed many companies to mass-produce their materials for the first time. As a consumer, it was suddenly cheaper and more convenient to buy new products from a flooded market than to reuse the old ones, so recycling took a back seat.

Pre- and During WWII

Pre and during WWII

Photo courtesy National Film Board of Canada

The next major comeback recycling made was due to some economic hardships, both nationally and globally, in the decades to follow. The stock market crash of 1929 devastated the global economy, creating the Great Depression which lasted in most countries until the ‘30s and ‘40s. With unemployment at a record high and poverty becoming common-place, recycling was put to use again in order to make materials last and dollars stretch.

The Great Depression eventually ended, but its end marks the beginning of World War II. While the war effort is generally credited with helping the U.S. dig its way out of economic peril, the theme of conservation still rang true. Financial constraints and material shortages while troops were overseas meant many households had to make due with less, and therefore continued to recycle.

Recycling at that point was practically patriotic!


Post-WWII landfill

Stock Photo

The end of World War II prompted an economic boom which dealt another drastic setback to the concept of recycling. A rebounding economy meant more money was being spent on new goods and fewer items were being recycled.

Landfills started gaining popularity in the U.S. as a convenient out of sight, out of mind option for waste disposal. As the historical pattern would predict, this prosperous time for the nation meant much less attention was paid to conservation and preservation compared to tougher times.

‘60s and ‘70s

It wasn’t until the ‘60s and ‘70s that recycling regained its momentum during the environmental movement. Decades of industry growth and improper waste disposal left unchecked caused enough public concern to give environmental protection a real platform.

By 1970, environmental issues had gained enough attention worldwide to prompt the first Earth Day, as well as the development of the now well-known universal symbol for recycling. 1970 also marks the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency – a U.S. government agency established to help protect the environment through research and regulation.

Rising energy costs in the ‘70s motivated recycling efforts as well. Both consumers and corporations were learning that energy and money could be saved, along with unsustainable resources.

‘80s and ‘90s and Beyond

'80s and '90s curbside programs

Stock Photo

In the decades to follow, recycling efforts were still better incorporated into everyday life, but have struggled to maintain the enthusiasm of the shift seen in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Curbside pickup of recyclables was introduced and became the norm, which helped establish recycling as a more convenient option.

Ozone depletion gained more substantial recognition as an environmental concern and was used to motivate recycling efforts on a wider scale. Production of plastic materials rose significantly, changing the scene for determining which materials were being submitted for recycling.

Modern day recycling efforts have come a long way. Recycled items are now often repurposed, not just reused. Scientific research about where the environment stands and the consequences of our actions has never been more available to the public, as well as information about how to recycle and repurpose different materials. Motivation is the remaining variable, as not everyone views recycling as a necessity.

Getting involved individually, with your community or even on a national or global level helps remind others that recycling is an important part of protecting the environment we all share.

The history of recycling has shown us that there’s no time like the present! Take the America Recycles Day Pledge or find a Nov. 15 event near you.

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