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A History of Early Recycling

A History of Early Recycling

A History of Early Recycling

Recycling is certainly no newcomer to the world, as the economic and environmental benefits have kept it alive for thousands of years.

However, the cans, bottles, and paper that fill these containers and sit kerbside waiting for pickup are a new addition. Different areas have different rules and regulations about what types of items are able to be recycled, but there are a few common materials that most programmes support.


Recycling paper has examples as far back as 1031, when one of the first instances took place in Japan. Of course, paper has a history of being made from reused materials, such as plant fibres and cloth, but it was eventually recognised that waste paper was even better for keeping the supply of paper going. The results from early attempts to recycle paper usually ended up less than ideal because there was no efficient way to de-ink, proving to be a rough kink in the system.

However, things soon headed towards a change when the first American paper mill was opened just outside of Philadelphia. Here, Rittenhouse Mill was shredding old linen rags to make paper. It was not until much later that Benjamin Franklin joined the mix, but still supposedly one of the earliest experimenters looking to re-pulp paper in the United States of America. Across the ocean, England was seeing a new de-inking process being researched in the start of the 18th century that was able to help make products using recycled paper, a strong competitor to products using traditional paper made out of materials like linen or wood fibres.

In 1874, paper collecting started up in Baltimore, Maryland when a municipal program tried it out. Although it did fail, in the “Encyclopaedia of Consumption and Waste” it is shared that later a similar attempt saw success in New York City. In most waste collection programmes, paper was one of the first items to be picked up during infant stages.

New York City

This recycling effort came to an all-time high during wartimes when material shortages were common and saw some publicity with the infamous “garbage barrage” in 1987. In the 1980’s there were a few legislative attempts to get involved with newspaper recycling efforts, but it was not until 1993 that the White House stepped in with an executive order regulating federal agencies and requiring them to purchase recycled paper.

The increased demand led to further innovation in the field of de-inking, along with other important solutions for problems such as contaminates from windows and adhesives often included with paper. The American Forest & Paper Association claims that by 2011, over 52,000,000 tons of paper was recovered making for a relatively high rate of 67% recovery.


Another item with a long history involving recycling is glass. For hundreds of years, starting with the Romans, there is writing of broken glass being collected and traded in. It was fairly common sense that the glass could be melted and reformed into new glassware, thanks to the process used for creating glass products in the first place.

In Jamestown, Virginia, the first glass bottles in America were produced, starting a new trend for beverage packaging. Although there is a storied history of these bottles being used for both refilling and reforming, it was not until the 1970’s that the environmental aspect of the concept further boosted its realised potency. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, by 2011 342% of glass containers were made from recycling processes.

Glass Bottles


The earliest cans were made of iron and used a tin coating that was hand-formed, making for an amazingly reliable and durable product. However, in the early 1940’s the wartime efforts made it necessary for steel to play a different role in American lives, building weapons and other necessary equipment for battle.

This spark continued on with new innovations and eventually resulted in steel becoming a frontrunner with more recycled material than all of the other listed materials combined.

While 123,000 tons of recycled steel were used in the US during 2011, based on a U.S. Geological Survey, the real star of the show is aluminium. With an unbeatable scrap value and light weight, aluminium quickly became a popular product for drinks. The first facilities designed specifically to recycle these items opened in Cleveland and Chicago as far back as 1904. Coors Brewing Company led the charge in the alcohol market, bringing out the first recyclable beer can and paying 1 cent for each that was returned to their brewery.

Thanks to many buy-back programs and widespread recycling adoption, aluminium now boasts a 65% recycling rated based on information from the Aluminium Association.


Plastic might be a late arrival when it comes to the history of packages, but it did not take long for it to catch on by any means. The US EPA estimates that almost 14,000,000 tons of plastic waste was generated in 2011, making up 12.7% of the overall waste.

In 1941 the PET bottle was invented to further boost recyclability of plastic bottles, and was soon followed up by HPDE in 1951, which is commonly used for milk or detergent bottles. By 1988 there were enough different types of plastic that the Society of the Plastics Industry invented the resin identification code, with numbers from 1 to 7 assigned for different plastic grades.

Despite this, the EPA estimates that only an abysmal 8% of plastic waste in 2001 was recovered in order to be recycled.

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