Recycling has been around almost as long as humans; it’s one of our signature activities. If something can be repurposed, it probably has been at some point in history. But back then, there was no municipal recycling bin. How did we get the recycling system we have today?
Modern recycling of products started in the 1860s with the Salvation Army, the first organization to collect used clothes and household items for reuse by people with low incomes. When organized garbage collection began in the late 19th century, workers sorted things like they do today to separate valuable items from stuff that had to be sent to a landfill or burned. 1904, the first two tin can factories opened in Cleveland and Chicago. This meant a trash company could earn money selling tin and aluminum for reuse in new cans.
In 1905, conveyor belts were introduced to help collect reusable scraps, mostly metal and glass. Whatever was reusable was sold. People also used leftover food to feed animals instead of throwing so much of it away — today, 40% of food produced each year goes uneaten and wasted.
By 1916, the U.S. military introduced the Waste Reclamation Service to gather materials and meet the need for metal during World War I.
War Brings Change
When World War II broke out, tin, steel, and other metals shortages for the war effort made recycling a national priority. In addition to metal, the military needed nylon, rope, scrap paper, and even rags. At the beginning of the war, an estimated 1.5 billion tons of scrap metal was lying around in America, enough to build countless airplanes, weapons, over five hundred thousand tanks, or even 100 battleships.
The war made it patriotic to recycle. Families would collect and donate cans, pots, pans, and more. It was common for children to collect scrap metal, and farmers would strip spare metal from their old machinery to meet the need for war supplies. These new habits opened the door to a new industry when the war ended, and soldiers came home. Scrap metal companies, for example, continued to collect iron, steel, and aluminum to sell to the automotive industry as the number of cars in the U.S. doubled from 25.8 million in 1945 to 52.1 million in 1955.
It wasn’t until 1964 that aluminum cans replaced tin cans entirely, and the recycling industry saw demand for aluminum skyrocket. Environmental awareness grew over the following 20 years, and the first community recycling programs appeared. Recycling businesses must earn enough money to pay their bills. Rising demand for recyclable materials like aluminum, glass, and paper transformed recycling into a growing industry.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Solid Waste Disposal Bill, which established regulations for landfills to prevent pollution. It became clear that everything could not be sent to landfills. A growing population produced too much waste to bury it all. By the 1970s, landfills started to fill up, and cities like New York started shipping their garbage to other states that had landfill space; the public began to be concerned with the environmental impact of the take-make-waste lifestyle.
Those who did want to recycle in the 1970s had to take their recyclables to private companies by themselves, because the blue bin still did not exist. The first curbside recycling program in the US was established in 1981 in Woodbury, New Jersey, sparking other programs to be implemented worldwide. Just seven years later in the US alone there were over a thousand municipal recycling programs in place, and in four more years there would be more than four thousand more established, bringing the US’s total up to 5,404. This meant that recycling was suddenly far more convenient. In 1960, 6% of waste was recycled, and by 1990, when curbside programs were more common, that number was up to 29% of waste being recycled on average.
The Container Corporation of America held a design contest in 1970, resulting in the three chasing arrows we still use today. The creator was Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old University of Southern California college student.
States began to pass laws to encourage recycling. In 1971, Oregon introduced the first “Bottle bill,” offering a nickel for every recycled beer and soda bottle to get more people to recycle.
People who wanted to recycle had to take their recyclables to private companies because the blue recycling bin we know today did not exist. The first curbside recycling program in the U.S. was established in 1981 in Woodbury, New Jersey, sparking other programs to be implemented worldwide. Just seven years later, there were over a thousand municipal recycling programs in the U.S. By 1992, 5,404 curbside collection programs had been established.
The sudden increase in convenient recycling changed household habits. In 1960, 6% of waste was recycled; by 1990, 29% was recycled annually. Unfortunately, the recycling rate has remained near these levels, hovering around 32% in the decades since.
How Does America Recycle?
The United States relies on a single-stream recycling system, meaning you put all recyclables in the same bin, and they get sorted later. This isn’t the most efficient way to handle waste; it has focused most recycling investments on the “Big Four” materials: metal, paper, glass, and a few types of plastic. Meanwhile, thousands of new materials that do not have convenient recycling services are introduced every year.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the nation’s recycling system has yet to evolve to meet the needs of the people, who complain that confusion about what can be recycled means that many recyclables end up in landfills. The answers are better collection programs and improved systems, known as circular economies, for using recycled materials in new products. For example, after a cardboard box is recycled, the paper fibers recovered from each package must be sent to manufacturers who will reuse them. There also needs to be a robust domestic industry based on using recycled materials; today, there is more supply than demand for several recycled materials. The result is that many of the materials collected in curbside bins are sent out of the country.
The EPA argues we need standards for the circular economy so that recyclable materials are described and measured similarly. With uniform measurements, success nationwide can be calculated accurately, and cooperation between counties or states becomes more difficult. Universal recycling laws in the U.S. are needed to reduce confusion about what can be recycled and how to handle materials. Each state sets its own standards and rules. Some do better than others, and currently, California has the most comprehensive environmental laws.
What can be done?
Recycling grew alongside the system for collecting garbage, and the two systems share the same infrastructure.
Consumers are often confused by the fact that the same truck will pick up trash and recycling. The materials are separated at the facility where the trucks drop off their load, called a materials recovery facility, or MRF, which recycling professionals pronounce “murph.” Local recycling rules are typically determined by which equipment the MRF has purchased, so for example in some cities beverage bottles must have the cap on and other the cap off because of the machines that grind the bottles before the plastic is melted down.
We cannot be confident that the single-stream approach, which focuses on easy-to-recycle stuff like paper, plastics, and metal, can capture all the different materials society needs to recycle. In the meantime, specialized recycling programs are appearing for all sorts of materials, such as contact lenses, pickleballs, and medical equipment. These efforts may eventually merge with the single-stream system.
To help recycling gain ground, the United States and other nations must set out consistent ways to measure and encourage an economy based on reuse. The circular economy may one day reuse everything over and over, reducing the need to mine new metal, cut down more trees, or drill for oil to make more plastic. For now, the single-stream recycling system needs to be extended to mirror the needs of the people.
You can help support recycling and reuse by shopping for things made from recycled materials. Show the companies you and your family buy from that you care by asking for recyclable packaging and products.