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When Did Americans Start Recycling?

April 14, 2020 in History

By Sheila Mulrooney Eldred

More than a century ago, recycling wasn’t a thing, but people did it instinctively.

In the 1800s, there were no blue recycling bins, no sorting, no recycling trucks rumbling down the alley. Recycling as we know it didn’t exist. But people were way better at it.

“People recycled far more than we do now,” says Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. If the elbows in a shirt wore out, you’d take the sleeves off, turn them inside out, and voila: new shirt. If a dress went out of style, you added new buttons or sent it back to the dressmaker to fashion a trendier frock. Eventually, the fabric would be turned into a quilt or a rag rug or just a rag.

“Before there was municipal solid waste disposal, stuff would pile up in your house if you didn’t reuse it,” Strasser points out. “In addition, people who made things had an understanding of the value of material goods that we don’t have at all. Literally, if everything you wore, sat on, or used in your house was something you made or your mother or uncle or the guy down the street made, you had a very different sense of value of material goods.”

Household manuals even featured discussions on how to repair glass, including using garlic as glue, she says.

Rag pickers of Paris, France, circa 1892.

The closest 19th-century equivalent to modern-day recycling? The ragman, Strasser says. The ragman went from house to house to buy old cloth for an international trade in rags to make into paper. Railroads largely put an end to the door-to-door rag collecting.

When garbage pickup started in the late 19th century, many cities separated reusable trash from garbage designated for a landfill. Just like today, workers sorted via conveyor belts as early as 1905. The cities sold the reusable trash to industries. And many individuals saved their organics to feed to animals.

But by the 1920s, source separation wasn’t happening. By then, not much was being recycled apart from metal at scrapyards.

“But really there was a relatively short period of time that people didn’t recycle,” Strasser says.

Recycling: From World War II to the 1960s

An early 1940s poster entitled ‘Wanted For Victory’ depicts a family as they sort ‘waste paper, old rags, scap metals, [and] old rubber’ for reuse in the war efforts.

During …read more