A Brief History of Recycling

“You must recycle everything.”

That’s what I sometimes hear when people learn that I don’t generate any trash. In reality, I rarely recycle because I rarely buy anything in a package that I could put into a recycling bin. I bring my own packaging with me when I shop at the farmers’ market and bulk bins—cloth produce bags and glass jars. So I amass very few items for recycling.

I have been told that living this way makes me a radical. But not long ago—less than 70 years—disposable packaging barely existed and back then, I would have seemed, well, normal (I presume…).

Throwaway culture

Plastic is a relatively new material. In 1907, Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, the world’s first truly synthetic plastic. This durable, moldable plastic ushered in a new era of consumer goods producible on a mass scale—items such as telephones, car accessories, radios, jewelry and even guns.

In her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Freinkel writes, “The creation of Bakelite marked a shift in the development of new plastics. From then on, scientists stopped looking for materials that could emulate nature; rather, they sought ‘to rearrange nature in new and imaginative ways.’ The 1920s and ’30s saw an outpouring of new materials from labs around the world.”

During World War II, plastic production “nearly [quadrupled] from 213 million pounds in 1939 to 818 million pounds in 1945.” Plastics were used to manufacture “mortar fuses, parachutes, aircraft components, antenna housing, bazooka barrels, enclosures for gun turrets, helmet liners, and countless other applications.” After the war ended, industry had to do something with all of those manufacturing plants it had built. So companies like DuPont began to target consumers with new products made of plastic.

The golden era of “Throwaway Living” had begun. 

“Packages don’t litter, people do” — American Can Corp executive¹

As industry produced more and more throwaway packaging, disposal became a problem. In 1953, Vermont attempted to ban disposable bottles. “Motorists were tossing the bottles into roadside fields, where they became a lethal ingredient in cattle fodder. Within months, the major can and glass bottle producers had formed a non-profit organization and had engaged support from the likes of Coca-Cola, Dixie, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Its name: Keep America Beautiful.” By 1957, the Vermont bottle ban was dead.²

Today, the anti-litter organization Keep America Beautiful partners with (among others):

  • Dow
  • Clorox
  • Nestlé Waters
  • Coca-Cola
  • Keurig
  • McDonald’s
  • Rubbermaid
  • Anheuser-Busch
  • Alcoa
  • Pepsico
  • Santa Fe Natural (a tobacco company…I am not making this up…)

Keep America Beautiful also dreamed up America Recycles Day, a one-day celebration designed to both reinforce the well-indoctrinated notion that consumers must clean up industry’s mess using taxpayer dollars and to keep us blind to the fact that we cannot possibly recycle our way out of this. Mollified, we continue buying their stuff.

According to The Guardian, “A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.” Another Guardian article states that since the 1950s, an abysmal 9 percent of all plastics have been recycled.

And even if we did manage to recycle 100 percent of our plastic—which we won’t—that plastic eventually makes its way to landfill. According to The Plastic Pollution Coalition, “Recycling paper, glass and metal is a complete cycle, while plastic is generally not…The best we can hope for is that our plastic water bottles and mayonnaise jars will be turned into other products (downcycled), such as doormats, textiles, plastic lumber, etc. These products will still end up in a landfill, and therefore, they do not stem the need for more virgin petroleum product.” 

China: This could change everything

This recent Bloomberg article has a somewhat misleading title: “China Just Handed the World a 111-Million-Ton Trash Problem.” Had I been the editor of this article, I’d have changed the title to “China Just Handed the World Back Its 111-Trillion-Ton Trash Problem.” (But good use of hyphens for that compound modifier.)

Why should China continue to serve as the world’s garbage dump? According to the piece, “China has imported 106 million tons of old bags, bottles, wrappers and containers worth $57.6 billion since 1992, the first year it disclosed data.” In 2017, China announced it would no longer accept our rubbish. “By 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of used plastic will need to be buried or recycled somewhere else—or not manufactured at all.” Just how much plastic is that? A mere one million metric tons is equivalent to “621,000 Tesla Model 3s. It’s 39 million bushels of corn kernels. The world’s 700 million iPhones make up roughly a tenth of a million metric tons.”

Let’s vote for not manufactured at all.

Real, non-greenwashed solutions

The plastic pollution crisis begins with production—not with disposal. Of course, we should recycle—but as a last resort, not a first line of defense. The more of us who refuse plastic before it becomes waste, the more industry and governments will take note and change. These changes have already begun around the world and the movement cannot be stopped.

Plastic Free July begins in a few days. You can take the pledge here to kick plastic for the month. You’ll find some changes easy to make—using cloth bags instead of plastic ones, saying no to plastic straws, bringing a reusable cup or thermos to the café, replacing bottled water with a reusable bottle you refill with tap water. Don’t worry if you slip up. Just do your best.

The one thing we must toss is the idea of throwaway living.

1. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Heather Rogers

2. Plastic Ocean, Captain Charles Moore

14 Replies to “A Brief History of Recycling”

  1. It makes me think how easily we all get sucked into marketing and promotion. I feel sad that things have got worse when we have know about the problem of packaging for so long. Though I seem to remember that plastic replacing glass as packaging on environmental grounds that it would be lighter so less fuel in distribution?

    1. But if people were buying less things in the first place that wouldn’t be an issue. 🙁

  2. Great post! As a medical professional for the last 35 years, I personally put a lot of blame on the manufacturing and daily use of plastics for the ever-increasing incidences of cancer.

  3. As always, great post Anne-Marie. Thanks for the history on the Keep America Beautiful Campaign. Something we see up to this day magnified! Lucky to have so many nonprofits, as you mentioned speaking “Truth to Plastic”. Cheers!

  4. Thanks Anne Marie! Posted to my facebook page…

  5. Stephanie Ramage-Liu says: Reply

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been trying to cut back on plastic and embrace the zero-waste life. I am not perfect but I appreciate your blog for advice and guidance.

  6. Great article Anne Marie – putting the focus squarely where it needs to be. Even as a very conscious consumer (but far far from perfect) I still manage to accumulate plastics which I diligently recycle but of course it really isn’t enough. The plastic free July I’m going to be flexing my ‘no’ muscle and also building my awareness around what changes I need to make to take my values based living a couple of steps further.
    Thanks for the post.

  7. Well said. I’m sick of the overly positive spin that’s put on recycling in Ireland. It actually encourages more consumption. Even our local environmental charities and political parties are backing recycling over minimisation.

  8. […] and information on how to live waste-free. She recently wrote A Brief History of Recycling (read it here). It’s an extremely eye-opening look at recycling, especially as it related to plastics. You […]

  9. I love the intro to the Plastic: Toxic Love Story. Try to go one day without touching anything plastic. She realized she couldn’t even get out of bed!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      So true! I have carpet in my bedroom, so wouldn’t be able to touch the ground without touching plastic. And my mattress definitely has synthetic material in it. It’s everywhere. And it happened in such a short amount of time! ~ Anne Marie

  10. I had the same reaction when I first saw the Bloomberg article. Why the heck is it China’s fault that they don’t want to accept our excess trash? I have to say that I’m feeling especially disheartened here in Texas where they overturned the right of city governments to ban plastic bags/containers based on an old law from the 1990’s that benefits industry more than it does consumers. Then they turn the argument into a question of free will versus government oversight which inflames emotions and sinks rational discussion. How dare anyone take away our god-given right to pollute the earth if we want to?! 🙁

  11. When I found our municipality had been sending our garbage eventually to China… I work for the municipality. Good on China for stopping imported garbage.

    Now, if someone could tell us how we could change consumer distribution of yogurt. I’ve amassed over 100 clean plastic yogurt containers. Of course, we use big containers for freezing some whole fruits and veggies, storing baking soda and detergent.

    I happily gave away 50 containers to local city programs on public street activation events for children’s programs. But still the pile grows… Maybe one day an entrepreneur will come along with their bulk yogurt truck and stops at markets… an idea.

  12. I feel your pain and frustration of how most of society is “trapped” in this dilemma.
    However, your remark “Let’s vote for not manufactured at all.” is hopelessly naive and would create a backlash in bringing change.
    Certainly plastics have been instrumental to the modern day conveniences and progress in many ways.
    The medical professional’s remark wasn’t balanced by the realization most medical advancement has depended on plastic.
    So although I agree something must be done, it will never turn on a dime. Just give a moment’s thought what would happen. It would be like turning off the power.
    What is needed is greater political action, planning, new technologies and economic motivations.

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