Before the industrial revolution, households actively recycled everything they could as the majority of people could not afford to buy new items, which were often handcrafted and expensive. However, the start of mass production combined with greater wealth created a “disposable” culture where economically it made more sense to throw away the old because a new replacement was so affordable.
Therefore we can trace a clear link between the economy and recycling. After industrialisation, it was the Great Depression of the 1930s that fuelled a rise in recycling once again. Even today during the most recent recession there was an interest in upcycling old items as part of coping in Austerity Britain.
Historically, on a larger scale our use of fossil fuels is a form of recycling. Oil, gas and coal are all the product of decaying animals and plants from millions of years ago, compressed over time into sedimentary rock. The heat and pressure eventually producing the resources that enabled modern industrialisation.
The first known example of paper recycling was seen in Philadelphia in 1690, whereby old cotton and linen was used to make paper. The United States continued to lead the way on recycling after its declaration of independence. With the supply of goods from Europe dramatically reduced and the English army invading, citizens of this new country gathered metal, paper and cloth to be recycled to aid the war effort.
In 1801, the Koops Mill in England was granted a patent for its method of creating “paper fit for writing, printing, and other purposes” from used paper. Ahead of their time, they unfortunately failed to make a profit and were declared bankrupt just two year later. It wasn’t until 1904, that the first metal recycling plants opened in the USA to support the upsurge in the popularity of canned goods. Although, the recycling of metal would prove even more vital in achieving victory in both world wars.
Modern recycling based on environmental concerns is often seen to have started with the first National Earth Day in 1970. However, recycling on economic grounds and even by Mother Nature herself has taken place for a lot longer.