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Fact or Fiction Friday - Recycling Time Line

Fact or Fiction Friday  - Recycling Time Line

Recycling may seem like a modern concept and movement, but humans have always reused things to alleviate the scarcity of resources. Recycling is “subjecting a used material to a process so that it can be reused.” The practice played a vital role during the years of the World Wars, when the disruption of trade routes and the rationing of raw materials and commodities forced the search for alternatives. 

 Answer to our Fact or Fiction question is False -  

Archaeologists have discovered evidence that ancient people living in the area of what is now Dubai practiced recycling methods around 3,000 years ago.

A team of researchers found around 2,600 copper, bronze and iron objects at Saruq Al Hadid in the Persian Gulf that incorporated broken parts from ceramic vessels.

"It is an interesting fact that a few thousand years ago, the inhabitants of this place implemented recycling. Broken ceramic vessels were not thrown away, instead they were only slightly modified and used as tools," Karol Juchniewicz, head of the research from ArcheoConsultant, told Science in Poland.

"They included weapons, decorations, jewelry and iconic or magical items, for example figurines of snakes," Juchniewicz said.

It was at that time that the first examples of large-scale organised recycling appeared, with the creation of committees, organisations and government campaigns. But the history of recycling begins much earlier. The following are some of the main milestones in the evolution of this age-old practice up to its current incarnation. 



500BC: The First Waste Program Was Established in Athens

When did recycling start? The earliest account is in 500BC, when the first municipal dump program was formed in the Western World. Trash had to be disposed of at least a mile from the city.

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    There is evidence that documents the existence of paper recycling in Japan, although it is assumed that their Chinese neighbors —the inventors of paper— were the first to begin recycling and that the procedure traveled to Japan from China. Due to the scarcity of plant fibers, the used paper was crushed until a pulp was obtained with which the recycling was carried out. The pulp was a grayish color because it was made from paper already dyed with ink.


    Soon after settling in the newly created town of Germantown, Philadelphia, German immigrant and paper manufacturer William Rittenhouse purchased 20 acres of land to build the first paper recycling plant in the New World, just two years after the first similar plants in England became operational. Old rags and pieces of linen —the fiber that was the main raw material for making paper in England and its American colonies— were collected by wagons and transported to the plant. There they were sorted, submerged in tanks of water and then beaten in mills until pulp was obtained, which was later placed in a mold and left to dry to obtain the strips of paper. These were destined for local printers and those in neighboring cities such as New York. For the next 40 years, the Rittenhouse plant was the only one operating in North America.


Recycling is used as Feedstock during the War

The evolution of recycling dates back to 1776, when patriots pulled down a statue of King George III, melted it down and used it to create 42,088 bullets during The American War of Independence. Paper was also recycled as a vital commodity, due to lack of raw materials.


The English paper manufacturer Matthias Koops patents a novel procedure to “extract ink from paper and convert this paper into pulp.” The method devised by Koops offered, for the first time, the possibility of obtaining high quality recycled paper from wastepaper. To prove he didn’t need linen rags to make paper, that same year Koops published the first book printed on recycled paper. A year later, the entrepreneur obtained a government license to build a large papermaking factory in Millbank.


1874-1904. More than two millennia after Athens became the first city in the Western world to implement a “program” for the treatment of household waste —consisting of depositing the waste far from the city limits— the American city of Baltimore launched the first organized program of selective recycling, with differentiated containers for the main types of waste. In that same year, 1874, in Nottingham (England), the first incineration plant for household waste came into operation. Three years later, in 1897, the city of New York established the first materials recycling center. The waste was collected, transported and deposited in large areas where paper, metal, carpets and fabrics, burlap bags and other textiles, twine, rubber and even horsehair were separated for later recycling and reuse. And in 1904 the first two plants for recycling cans and aluminum containers were opened in Chicago and Cleveland.



New York Establishes the First Crude Recycling Plant

A material recovery center was built in New York, and usable material was separated from trash in ‘picking yards.’ There scap metal, paper, rubber, twine and more were recycled.


The First Aluminum Recycling Plants Open

A real moment in the history of recycling came in 1904, when aluminum can recycling factories opened in Chicago, Illinois – the first of their kind in America.


Waste Reclamation Service Implemented during WW1

The famous recycling slogan, ‘Don’t Waste It, Save It,’ was created during World War 1. Due to large-scale material shortages the government created a Waste Reclamation Service.


Residents Survive The Great Depression by Recycling Scrap

The Great Depression was an infamous time of shortages, so residents were encouraged to recycle or reuse everything from scrap metal, to cloth, paper, sacks and more. The saying ‘use it up, wear it out, make do or do without’ became a popular phrase.


Recycling Supports the War Effort during WW2

Like in WW1, recycling became critical to the war effort during WW2. Materials were commonly recycled, reused and rationed – everything from rubber, to nylon and scrap.

Recycling was also very present during more distressing periods, such as the Second World War. In 1941, the British government imposed garment rationing on its population, with a point system that assigned a value to each item of clothing. During that time, everything could have a second use; even the lace that once adorned a dress now served as a bandage. In the US, the enormous war effort sparked by its entry into the war led the Roosevelt administration to begin a campaign to urge the population to collect used cooking fat, tin cans, metals or any material that could be used to make explosives and weapons. Even Disney’s Pluto and Minnie Mouse did their bit with the short film Out of the Frying Pan and into the Firing Line, in which a voice-over said that, “a skillet of bacon grease is a little munitions factory.”



Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Gary Anderson Creates The Mobius Loop

Who invented recycling? No-one in particular. As long as there have been raw materials, there has been recycling. But 23 year old Gary Anderson created the modern concept of recycling with his Mobius Loop logo, which is associated with the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ slogan.

The Earth Day Movement Sparks Change

One of the biggest movements in the history of recycling happened in 1970, with 20 million people taking part in the Earth Day marches. US Senator Gaylord Nelson raised national awareness about increasing waste and the need to recycle. April 22nd is still globally recognized as Earth Day.


The First Recycling Mill Was Built in Pennsylvania

How has recycling changed over time? After the wars and marches, recycling started to be commercialized. In 1972, the first recycling mill was established in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.


In Woodbury, New Jersey, the very first curbside recycling program was opened in 1981. The concept was simple, resident’s recycling would be collected for processing at their homes.


US Curbside Recycling Programs Reach 5,404

By 1988, there were 1,050 programs in the US, by 1992, there were 5,202. This was a fast growth period for the spread of the now popularized city curbside programs.


There are 10,000 Recycling Centers Nationwide

By 1995, over 10,000 recycling centers existed in the US. At one point California recycled 80% of its aluminum cans. Two out of 3 cans were recycled in the US at this time.


The EPA Confirms That Recycling Lowers Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Another critical point in the history of recycling came in 2000, when the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed the link between waste and global warming. They declared that the best way to lower greenhouse gas emissions (to slow climate change) would be to recycle.


Dell Computers Starts the First E-waste Recycling Program

Dell computers sparked the e-waste recycling movement, by offering residents free recycling services for all of their products.


Japanese researchers discover a new species of bacteria living in landfills —named Ideonella sakainesis— that feeds on the plastic of bottles and containers by secreting a pair of enzymes capable of breaking down in only six weeks polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (the polymer from which most plastic containers are manufactured). Two years later, British and American scientists managed to modify one of the original enzymes to obtain a more effective and faster version that breaks down PET in a few days. In addition, it is also capable of degrading another type of material, polyethylene furanoate (PEF), used as an alternative in the production of containers.

Plastic waste is one of the main environmental problems. Source: Phere

Both discoveries open the door to having a method to treat and dispose of plastic waste in the near future. Nowadays, they constitute one of the main environmental problems threatening the planet due to their durability and massive accumulation in the environment. The challenge now is to turn this laboratory treatment into an economically profitable large-scale industrial process. 





The China Import Ban

Over the next decade, laws were passed and innovations came to light that improved the industry. Then, China moved to ban 24 categories of recycling imports, which crippled the US – and the global recycling system.

With a new 0.5% contamination standard, China declared that Americas recycled materials were too contaminated to use any longer. With no-where for the recycling to go, and no buyers – the system began to experience seismic shifts, break downs and closures.   


The US Recycling System Hits Crisis Point

Sixteen more materials from the China ban came into effect in 2019. Mass recycling program closures and plant shutdowns were reported.

As programs became more expensive to run, municipalities were forced to severely limit or close them altogether. A recycling crisis was officially announced by leading industry experts.


COVID-19 Shuts Down Recycling Plants

Even though recycling was deemed an essential service, the sweeping effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that struck in 2020 have caused havoc to an already ailing industry.

There have been many more closures, and municipalities have had to dedicate more time, funding and effort into the increasing issue that is keeping their city recycling programs alive.

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  • Carole Zellers