Sustainable Impact

The Surprising History of Recycling

Dan Marek
September 13, 2023
6 minutes

Recycling: Older Than Your Grandma's Grandma!

Did you know that recycling isn't just a 21st-century trend but something people have been practising for nearly a millennium? So hop onboard our virtual time machine as we travel back through the ages and discover recycling's real roots...

Where did we go wrong?

In 1955, Life magazine released an article actually celebrating a throwaway lifestyle, praising the idea of using things once and then tossing them. It seems outlandish, right? But before we scratch our heads in disbelief, let's embark on a journey to learn how recycling was done by our ancestors.

Life magazine cut-out showing throwaway living article

Recycling over the years

Japan - Where it All Began

Long ago, in 11th Century Japan, people already knew how to conserve materials. They especially loved to reuse paper.

1690 - Birth of Paper Mills

Fast forward to 1690s Philadelphia. Envision William Rittenhouse, frustratedly trying to scribble on wood, thinking, "There's got to be a better way!" His lightbulb moment? Recycling old fabric for the pioneering paper mills.

1776 - Metalling and Recycling

A statue of King George III was torn down and turned into 42,088 bullets for the Revolutionary War. Ever wonder who counted each one?

Painting of King George III being torn down and recycled

1813 - Ever Heard of 'Shoddy'?

In a place called Yorkshire, a man named Benjamin Law began recycling old rags to make wool. He termed this the 'Shoddy' process. The meaning is slightly different today - describing things as 'shoddy' if they're not very good.

Definition of shoddy

1904 - The Aluminium Awakening

After the game-changing Hall-Heroult process was invented in 1886, Chicago was quick on the uptake. By 1904, the city embraced aluminium recycling plants. Today? Recycling a single can conserves 95% of the energy used to create one from scratch. That's enough energy to binge-watch your favourite show for 4 hours!

1945 - Recycling Through Wars

Amidst World Wars, both the U.S. and the UK turned waste into weaponry. Fun tidbit: Used cooking fats were transformed into explosive fuel. Necessity truly is the mother of invention!

1970 - Birth of an Iconic Symbol

As environmental awareness gained popularity through the 70s, the first Earth Day witnessed the birth of the now ubiquitous 'chasing arrows' Mobius loop symbol, all thanks to the genius of a young Gary Anderson - a college student.

Photograph of Gary Anderson - creator of the Mobius Loop (recycling symbol)

1983 - Rise of the Blue Box

Kudos to Canada. Their pioneering blue-box system made sorting household packaging materials like plastic, paper and glass a breeze. And guess what? The world followed suit!

1991 - Tackling E-Waste

With more technology, we got more electronic waste. In response Switzerland, stayed ahead of the curve by introducing the first e-waste recycling program in 1991.

2006 - Corporate Giants Join In

By 2006, major players like Dell were setting the bar high, offering free product recycling. And it wasn't long before Apple and Sony jumped aboard too.

2015 - The Plastic Bag Pivot

Once upon a time, plastic bags came free and easy. But with England's 5p charge in 2015, usage of this single-use plastic plummeted by a staggering 80%. Small steps, massive leaps!

Plastic bag tax headlines UK

What's next?

We've seen how companies can achieve measurable benefits by adopting a circular economy approach of sustainable smart waste practices. From saving money to enhanced reputation and, most importantly, making a real difference for the planet. Plus we're also seeing more global initiatives driving this movement e.g. Extended Producer Responsibility. But ultimately, this is a shared responsibility of which we are all a part. So let's champion recycling, support climate-conscious businesses looking to reduce their waste, and encourage even the corporate giants to avoid greenwashing and embrace ambitious sustainability goals.

How can Scrapp help?

Are you embarking on your own recycling journey? Our sustainability experts are here to guide you. So, if you need further guidance, personalized strategies, or more details about our digital recycling tools, don't hesitate to reach out. We're committed to helping you achieve your sustainability goals.

You can book a free 15-minute chat with our team here.

Helpful recycling resources

Article by
Dan Marek