Recycling is an activity that many people have done for generations. Whether the objects are big or small, glass or plastic, paper or cardboard; if they can be used for one thing, chances are they can be used for something else when their original purpose is served. But how did this phenomenon come to be? Where did it all start? Why do we do it in the first place? To explain the history of recycling, we also need to explain the history of waste management in general. That’s as good of a place as any to start.
In ancient times, waste mainly consisted of ash, excess wood, bones, and leftover food scraps. All of it was disposed of in the ground as compost to help improve the soil. Populations back then were also much smaller than they are now, and since there was less garbage then, the management of waste wasn’t a huge issue. Archeological excavations of these early living quarters revealed that bits and pieces of waste often fell to the floor and were trampled into the dirt or brushed to the side. When the floors became too cluttered, they would be covered by a layer of clean, fresh clay. As a result, the elevation of these ancient cities rose overtime (“History of Solid Waste Management”).
As cities began to develop, and populations began to grow, waste was burned, buried, or simply left to pile up. After a while, however, the piles of filth created stench, harbored pests, and led to contaminated water supplies. Plagues, like the Black Death, were a result of this poor disposal of waste. The earliest form of recycling that occurred during this period existed in the form of salvaging: these items included leather, feathers and down, and textiles. Vegetable scraps were fed to livestock, and the waste they produced was used as fertilizer. Timber was salvaged and reused in construction and ship-building. Metals, including gold, were melted down and re-cast into new items many times (“History of Solid Waste Management”).
During the Industrial Revolution, growing populations and increased production led to greater amounts of waste. To avoid the potential problems associated with unmanaged waste in urban areas, government officials instituted organized waste collection and disposal systems in many of these cities (“History of Solid Waste Management”). In 1881, the New York City Department of Street Cleaning, now called the Department of Sanitation, was created to minimize disorganized garbage collection and remove litter from the streets (“History of NYC Recycling”). The advent of systemic waste management didn’t put an end to scavengers or the recycling function that they performed, but it did eventually shift the locus of scavenging from the streets to the dumps. Many of these people literally lived off of the phase, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” selling off whatever they could find in the rubbish (“History of Solid Waste Management”).
During the 20th century, in many parts of the developed world, more organized waste collection and landfilling programs were established. By 1910, nearly 80 percent of American cities had some sort of organized solid waste collection. The passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 led to the closure of many earlier-constructed incinerators, because they could not adequately control the air pollution they produced. However, subsequently built, modern waste-to-energy plants included pollution controls that removed particles and reduced gas emissions to minute levels while producing enough electricity to power over one million homes (“History of Solid Waste Management”).
In recent decades, recycling became a fully-developed technology. As of 2007, more than 34 percent of American municipal waste is recycled or composted, conserving vital resources and energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting air and water quality. While one can still find traditional scavengers looking for resources in some dumps throughout the developing world, operators of modern landfills do not allow traditional scavenging, since active cells in operational landfills can be dangerous places to be in (“History of Solid Waste Management”).
The earliest versions of waste collection involved men collecting trash with horse- or mule-drawn carts. With the advent of the automobile, garbage trucks started to develop. The following video clip provides a more detailed history of the development of garbage truck technology:
“Extreme Trucks.” Modern Marvels. History Channel. 12 Nov. 2003. Television. <www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IQ8u9UrNkqc>
“History of NYC Recycling.” NYC Recycles. The City of New York, 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/resources/history.shtml>
“History of Solid Waste Management.” Environmentalists. Every Day. Environmental Industry Associations, 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <http://www.environmentalistseveryday.org/publications-solid-waste-industry-research/information/history-of-solid-waste-management/index.php>