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The History Of Recycling

Updated on April 11, 2013

Just How Old Is Recycling?

Recycling is a very old practice. In fact, it is said that the history of recycling goes back thousands of years.

Of course, it may not have been done the same way it is done today, but when looking at the big picture, recycling is as ancient as the human race itself.

To whet your appetite for learning more about recycling history, here are merely a few ways that people have used recycling in the past:

*Recycling for scraps

*Recycling for weapons

*Recycling for survival

*Recycling for economic reasons

*Recycling for reducing waste environmental recycling

photo credit: Arlington County via photo pin cc

Did you know that the history of recycling was so old?

Did you know that the history of recycling was so old?

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Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

I read this book a little while ago and I found it fascinating. It is basically answering the question "What did they do with..." and then goes on to explain about the various discarded things. Once you read this book, you will never look at garbage quite the same way!


Latest research on prehistoric recycling

New studies show evidence of recycling as far back as 13,000 years ago!

recycled weapons
recycled weapons

Recycling For Weapons

The history of recycling starts with reusing scraps for creating new weapons and tools. This would be wood, stones and of course, the mother of all weaponry, metal.

Melting the metal and re-forming it to create new weapons of destruction is nothing new. It has been done since the ancient times of the Vikings when creating something new was very difficult and time consuming due to lack of proper tools and machinery to speed up the process. It was much cheaper and more effective to reuse existing pieces than start from scratch.

There is plenty of archaeological evidence to suggest that ancient jewelry and coins were sacrificed for the sake of the gods of wars.

But it was during the first and second World Wars that metal recycling for weapons was done truly en masse. This is when recycling became extremely popular in several circles of society. Times of war demand lots of resources, and metal was not cheap.

The first national scale movement for recycling started with World War II. People were urged to send in their metal objects for 'patriotic reasons'. These were in turn melted down and turned into weapons which could greatly contribute to winning at war.

photo credit: the brownhorse via photo pin cc

Contribute to recycling

The best way to make sure everyone in your household recycles is to get organised.

Putting a nice recycling bin in the house means there's no excuse not to sort out the trash from the recyclable items.

Recycling For Economic Reasons

Making weapons wasn't the only motivation for recycling. Recycling for economic reasons also has an important history. In the US and other Western countries, the economic depression was one period when recycling was very popular.

People needed to recycle their things for mere survival. During those times people had no money to buy new things. The most pressing time for economic recycling was, however right after WWII. This is when most countries were at their lowest, vulnerable, and with hardly any resources to build and create new things.

It is interesting to note that a few years after WWII, right until the 1960s and 1970s, recycling in the US took a backseat due to the economic boom, where buying new things all the time became very fashionable.

By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How Recycling Saves You Money

earth day
earth day

The Environmental Movement Of The 70s

Once the economic boom started in the US, people forgot how to save and how to recycle. However the history of recycling saw a new emergence in the late 60s and the 70s with the Environmental Movement.

This movement brought a greater public awareness to the issues of waste and recycling, and people really became conscious about the Earth and taking action to protect it.

The 1970s also saw the first Earth Day, which was started by John McConnell who presented the idea at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco. The Earth Day has been held every year since and it is a symbol that inspires us all and makes us aware of the environment issues we face.

This is when environmental recycling for reducing waste was really born.

photo credit: : Damien via photo pin cc

Teaching children about recycling

Children can never be too young to learn how to recycle. Everything they learn early on in life will be able to use throughout their entire adulthood as a second nature.

Don't leave your children uneducated when it comes to recycling. These books make it fun to learn how to.

recycling symbol
recycling symbol

The Recycling Symbol

The first recycling symbol (shown in the picture on the right) was created in the late 1960s by Gary Anderson, at the time a 23-year old college student. But how did this symbol get created in the first place?

Earlier on I talked about the first Earth Day that would make people aware of the environment destruction that we are doing to our Earth every single day.

This memorable event challenged a large manufacturer of recycled paperboard who decided to sponsor an art contest for students in school, for creating the best entry around these environmental issues.

Gary Anderson's entry has become so popular that now it is the universal recycling symbol that everyone in the world recognizes. Gary Anderson's name might be unfamiliar to many, but his legacy is genuine and everlasting.

Plastic Bottle Recycling

The Story of Stuff

By far the best and easiest to understand explanation of why we need to recycle.

Recycling bags

These stylish and heavy duty bags let you carry your recyclables to the trash can easily. They're also great for doing the grocery shopping - reducing plastic bag use is simple when you have an alternative with you.

Who's Responsible?

Who's job is it to ensure stuff is recycled?

Recycling On A Global Scale

While it is true that the 1970s saw the first major movement for recycling and reusing waste, it was not until 20 years after that recycling really took off.

One of the noteworthy milestones in the history of recycling was an incident in 1978 when a large ship loaded with garbage was cruising the East Coast looking for a place to unload their rubbish. This has ignited such a heated debate that it became truly the springboard of the ever growing recycling movement in the US.

1991 was Germany's year to shine when they passed a law which basically loaded the manufacturers with the entire responsibility of a product's life cycle, including disposing of the items. This pushed DSD, a German company to create the by now very popular 'green dot' waste management. This in turn encouraged other European countries to participate more actively in their own recycling activities.

photo credit: JasonParis via photo pin cc

recycling today
recycling today

Recycling Today

Nowadays almost every country in the world has their own recycling movements which are getting stricter and stricter by the hour. Unfortunately with the growing amount of waste all around the world, recycling is not a cheap project. The waste needs to be collected, transported to the various landfills and then sorted by the material.

In several countries, including Germany, people at home are expected to sort their own garbage/rubbish and put them in separate plastic bags. Most residential buildings have 2 or even 3 different containers for these separately sorted items.

For example you can have a container with 3 different compartments for glass: brown glass, green glass and clear glass; a container for paper and carton; a container for plastic material (plastic bags, various plastic bottles) and a container for your regular garbage (food rests, etc).

The history of recycling is rich indeed and it has evolved from its first recycling attempts. People have become more and more conscious of the dangers we ourselves bring to our planet Earth and how easy it is to destroy it. As the industrial waste growth, so does grow the public awareness and recycling movement among the people in our society.

photo credit: Aaron Webb via photo pin cc

Are You Recycling Anything?

Are You Recycling Anything?

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The Life Of A Recyclable

How Are You Contributing To Recycling? - Leave your comments below

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I enjoyed your lens, this is really helpful and so informative! I learned a great deal about recycling, thank you for sharing. Nice work.

    • billiboy profile image


      5 years ago

      We collect it and reuse it in Munich

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Love your lens! Great information and was really well done! Thank you for sharing! :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is really cool, I like these, it is helpful to me, thank you. :)

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 

      6 years ago

      I am not doing as much as I wish I was. Great writing like yours inspires me to do more. One thing I am doing more of is buying less and less - really trying to decrease the amount of packaging I use. I frequently refuse bags at the stores - a little bit at a time helps.

    • AstroGremlin profile image


      6 years ago

      My footprint on the Earth is as small as I can make it, yet still I leave a wound. I try to be good but cannot kid myself I am using up this planet, too.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      We try to reduce what we buy.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I'm spending almost all of my time trying to inspire respect for nature. I wrote "trying" because I'm amazed (and disappointed) by the aggressive efforts that oppose caring for our environment. It's almost as if some people are in a lunatic frenzy to drive humanity into extinction.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      plastics. We collect it and reuse it

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      plastics. We collect it and reuse it

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 

      6 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      the epa assesses that we can recycle 85% of our total waste. if large number of people become aware of the advantages of recycling, and take action. thanks for spreading this useful info.

    • kislanyk profile image


      6 years ago from Cyprus

      Enjoy your new baby and I hope it flourishes it under your care :)

    • LadyJasmine LM profile image

      LadyJasmine LM 

      7 years ago

      Just so you know I enjoyed your lens, so I blessed it and featured it here:

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I didn't know that recycling has along history before reading this lens. Nice lens!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Anything and everything that is used for us is reusable for something or somebody. Everything is segregated and metals and plastics are sold for scrap value and all including waste paper is sent for recycling. That IMO, is for the better. Nice lens for environmental consciousness. Thank you.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      We sort our rubbish into recycling and let the council deal with it. We try not to be too wasteful and turn empty paper towel rolls into toys for our kids

    • Jeannieinabottl1 profile image


      7 years ago

      I recycle newspapers and cans, but honestly, I could probably do more.This is a really interesting lens and it looks like you put a lot of research into it. Thanks for the information!


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