The history of recyclingWhen you consider that the majority of Britons only started recycling in 2003 when the Government introduced the Household Waste Recycling Act, it is easy to understand why many people still believe that recycling is a new concept.

But recycling is not new, far from it, it has been around for thousands of years, in fact, archaeological evidence suggests that is goes as far back as 400BC, when Romans began recycling bronze coins to make swords and statues, and glass from the Byzantine period was melted down and transformed into new items in the ancient city of Sagalassos. And yet, surprisingly, we are still only recycling less than 50% of our household waste today.

Recycling is no longer a choice, but rather a necessity if we are to conserve natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, limit the amount of pollution entering the atmosphere, and save energy, and if you still feel that ‘life it too short to rinse out yogurt pots’, you may be interested to know that your ancestors were quite possibly better at recycling than you are…

Recycling: A Brief History

500BC: Greece may be struggling to meet its recycling targets in the 21st Century, but it was Athens that first introduced a municipal dump program to the Western World way back in 500BC. The program dictated that all waste must be disposed of at least one mile from the city’s walls, and if you didn’t have a horse, that meant a very long walk with a very heavy sack of rubbish.  Think about that next time you argue about who’s turn it is to put the wheelie bins out!

1031: Japan made its mark in the recycling world when it started collecting waste paper to be recycled and re-pulped to make new paper. The new product was sold in local shops across the country, becoming a huge success.

1776: Evidence suggests that we are more prone to recycling in times of austerity, and that was most certainly the case in 1776 when America declared its independence from England, and the War of Independence began.  Scrap metal was recycled into weapons, iron pots and pans were melted down for armaments, and patriots were encouraged to donate paper and cloth to the American Revolution.

1865: The year in which the Salvation Army was founded in England, and the ‘Household Salvage Brigades’ were employed to collect, sort and recycle unwanted goods. By the 1890’s, the Salvation Army had migrated to the United States, where it is still going strong today.

Early 1900s: The phrase “Waste is Wealth” is adopted by all recycling advocates in the US to describe the profits and revenue that could be earned by sorting, reselling and recycling household waste.

1916 – 1918: Due to severe shortages of raw materials during the First World War, US citizens were encouraged to “Don’t Waste Waste – Save It” by the federal government. Everything from old rags and newspapers to timber and metal was recycled and reused to make new objects during this period.

1939 – 1945: The scenario was much the same during World War II, when massive raw material shortages made recycling a necessity. As paper, metal, food, and other items became rationed, many people had to recycle their waste to source the extra materials needed at home, and overseas on the front line of battle.

1970: By the seventies, people were becoming more aware of environmental issues, and the first Earth Day was held on 22nd April 1970.  Founded by Gaylord Nelson and John McConnell, Earth Day was designed to raise awareness, inspire the general public to recycle, and draw attention to the increasing problems of waste.  Fast-forward 45 years, and Earth Day is now supported in over 192 countries by over 1,000,000,000 people worldwide.

1977: Towards the end of the seventies a recycling resurgence had begun, and in 1977, the very first bottle bank was unveiled in Great Britain. There are now more than 50,000 across the country.

1980: During the eighties, many local authorities issued wheelie bins and recycling boxes to homes across the country in a bid to encourage recycling and reduce the amount of waste reaching what were already overcrowded landfills.  This, combined with weekly curb side collections, showed instant results, although by 1995, the UK was still only recycling 7.9% of household waste.

1990: This historic year when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, East and West Germany were reunited, and the Gulf War began, was also the year when the Environmental Protection Act was introduced in the United Kingdom, outlining new guidelines for the disposal of waste. The terms ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Global Warming’ were now part of daily life, with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saying, “We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere… The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto”.  By 1998, England had experienced its warmest year ever recorded.

2003 - 2010: Soon after the Environmental Protection Act 1990, came the Household Waste Recycling Act of 2003, which required local authorities across England to collect at least two streams of recyclable household waste by 2010.

2010 – 2015: In 2010, another initiative called Zero Waste England was introduced to increase recycling at home and help the government reach its recycling targets by 2015, and launch a zero waste economy by holding members of the general public responsible for their household waste, and businesses responsible for what they produced.

Present Day: In order to keep up with other countries within the European Union, the UK must recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020.  In 2014, we recycled 44.9 percent, and in 2015 we recycled 46%, so we are most definitely moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go if we are to complete with Germany, Belgium and Austria, who currently recycle more than 50 percent of all household waste, and have done so for several years.

The history of recycling may be interesting, but it’s the future of recycling that will show if we have done enough, or if we have left it too little too late.