TheHistory of Recycling
Who invented recycling?
There’s something of an audacious statement floating around: Bill Coors invented recycling. The reasoning goes that Coors was the first beer company to promote aluminum cans back in 1959, way before sustainability was even cool. The company even offered to pay a penny for each can that was returned to it, which it then recycled. Coors mentioned in a video that it then was flooded with the cans. This in an era when it was common to just strew cans everywhere, and other beer cans were made to be thrown out. It’s not an accomplishment to thumb your nose at.
But it does raise an interesting question: Who did invent recycling and when? Surely, all of recycling can’t be credited back to a single beer company in 1959.
The fact is, recycling dates back thousands of years. Re-pulped, recycled paper dates back to ancient Japan.
Already in 1690, The Rittenhouse Mill in Philadelphia opened to make paper from recycled cotton, linen and used paper. And in the American Revolution, old scrap metal and kettles were collected and melted down for the war.
In 1896, recycling started to take the form we know it as today. New York’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, Colonel George Waring, organized the U.S.’s first garbage sorting plant for recycling. In 1904, the U.S.’s first aluminum recycling plants opened in Chicago and Cleveland. During this era, the lack of mass production also forced people to reuse and repair what they had. Scrap yards recycled old cars and metal, and retailers took old cardboard boxes to recycle.
WWI and WWII inspired a recycling frenzy across the U.S. Drives were held nationwide for paper, rubber and anything else that might go towards each war. Grease from meat cooking was even saved to make munitions.
Unfortunately, recycling rates took a nosedive in the 1960s as wealth increased and mass-produced goods became even more widely available. America was becoming a “disposable society.” But the environmental campaigns of the 1970s put people back on track. The EPA was created in 1970, and the first Earth Day was held in 1970 as well. The EPA organized recycling initiatives across the country, along with some state agencies.
Then, in 1976, legislation started to get serious about recycling. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act emphasized recycling. In the 1980s, the nation became acutely aware of pollution caused by reckless trash dumping. By 1986, Rhode Island signed in America’s first mandatory statewide recycling law. In 1989, the EPA issued “An Agenda for Action,” calling for recycling to be one of its biggest priorities. In 1990, the nation saw 140 recycling laws in 38 states and the District of Columbia put into place.
In the 1990s, industries had made way for more products to be made from recycled materials, and the national recycling rate reached double digits at 28.2 percent in 1998, according to the EPA.
By the 2000s, Americans were seeing reasons everywhere to “go green.” Global warming came into the public debate in a big way thanks to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” News stories covered climate change, increasingly volatile weather like Hurricane Katrina, soaring gas prices attributed to shortages and new scientific findings confirming devastating environmental impacts. Finally, upcycling, reusable cloth bags and zero waste supermarkets are trendy today.
So, there you have it: the long, convoluted history of recycling efforts in a nutshell. The next time someone claims one person or company invented recycling, just remember: Recycling’s been around for as long as resourceful folks have. It’s a large movement bigger than any one person and encompasses us all.