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Recycling Industry

The History of Waste and Recycling

Ancient Times
Humans have been recycling for thousands of years and Mother Nature has been recycling since the beginning of time.  When the dinosaurs became extinct sixty-five million years ago, they began to decompose.  After much time had passed, combined with heat and pressure, the remains of the dinosaurs were recycled into gas and oil.  In ten-thousand B.C. the first nomadic tribes began to settle, thus forcing them to deal with their waste rather than just leaving it behind as they had done before.  In five-hundred B.C., Athens organized the first municipal dumps in the Western World.  In two-hundred B.C. the first sanitation force was created by the Romans.  This early example of waste management consisted of two men walking the streets, picking up garbage and hauling it away in a wagon.  Archaeological evidence has shown that glass was recycled as early as 400 B.C. in the Byzantine Empire (modern Turkey).  Additional evidence has shown that early Romans recycled bronze coins into more valuable statues.  The first recorded paper recycling occurred in Japan in 1031.  Throughout time it seems that people have always recycled for both economic and environmental reasons.  Times of historical distress have nearly always coincided with the discovery of less waste, such as in times of war, famine or wide spread disease.  

Early Modern/Pre-Industrial Era
In 1690, the recycled paper manufacturing process was introduced in Philadelphia. Silversmith Paul Revere advertised for scrap metal of all kinds to aid in the war efforts with England in 1776. This was a trend that would follow America into the twentieth century. In the 1840’s peddlers with horse-drawn carts collected and recycled anything with resale value. The first rudimentary curbside program was introduced in Baltimore in 1874. In 1892 the Sierra Club, the first national environmental organization, was formed in San Francisco.

During the roaring twenties, conspicuous consumption began to get a foothold. The advent of numerous disposable consumer goods provided a greater convenience but also greater waste. During WWII a sense of patriotism seemed to surround recycling efforts. Metal drives were organized as a key part of the war effort. That combined with the Great Depression forced people to be thinking about reusing and recycling once more.

Post WWII 1945-1969
Although conservation programs continued post-war in some countries such as Japan, efforts in the U.S. waned substantially. With the advent of numerous new ways to package products and a proclivity for convenience, people began to generate more garbage and have less concern for recycling. In the forties and fifties, landfilling became a cheap and easy way to dispose of unwanted or end of life items furthering the decline of recycling.

The 1970’s
The 1970’s was a significant decade for recycling. During this time much of the ground work for future advances was laid. In 1970 we saw the advent of the universal symbol for recycling. In 1970 we also witnessed the first Earth Day as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The first buy-back centers where consumers could drop-off items for recycling were established in 1972. The rapidly rising energy costs also fostered a renewed enthusiasm toward conservation.

The 1980’s and 1990’s
In the 1980’s we saw continued expansion of the curbside programs across the U.S. In the late eighties we witnessed a couple of wake up calls pertaining to the amount of waste being created and how it was being handled. The first incident occurred in 1987 when the Mobro Barge hauled trash from New York to six states and three countries which all refused to let them dump. After traveling six-thousand miles for six months they ultimately were permitted to dump back in New York where the garbage was incinerated and the ash buried in a landfill. This incident was followed a year later by the infamous hypodermic needles that washed ashore on numerous East Coast Beaches. That trash was ultimately traced back to its origins at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, New York. Cleanup programs were enacted but these events permanently changed our views on waste.

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