Recycling as it is practiced today, with large centralized systems for capturing waste from disposable consumption, is a fairly new development of the late twentieth century (Grabianowski, 2017). Recycling is far older that a few decades, since it predates modern manufacturing. In fact, it was the main means of accessing scarce materials such as metal for thousands of years (Waxman, 2016). The first recorded recycling of paper is said to have occurred in Japan in the 9th century, and this production and disposal of paper through recycling it continues to the modern day (American Disposal Systems, 2017).
Composting was one method of recycling that was practiced for millennia by households that subsisted on their own agriculture (Diaz & De Bertoldi, 2007). Composting was practiced worldwide prior to easy access to fertilizer and similar goods from Asia to the undiscovered Americas (Diaz & De Bertoldi, 2007). In fact, there is considerable evidence that composting was practiced in Neolithic civilizations (Diaz & De Bertoldi, 2007).
Most cultures through history would have been creative with the reuse of any materials that could be recycled, for the simple reason that manufacturing was only done on a small scale if at all. The ancient Romans recycled, with large scale projects such as building requiring extensive recycled materials (Silva et al., 2005). Even after the advent of the industrial age, household level reuse of items was standard. Larger scale recycling came into being in the Western world by the seventeenth century (Zahedieh, 2010). The recycling of various plant based products was a feature of England by 1660 as early industrialists realized the commercial opportunity (Zahedieh, 2010). Paper recycling is first noted on an industrial level in the late 17th century in America with the Rittenhouse Mill which began recycling cloth and plant based products to make paper in Philadelphia (Green, 1990).
Many professions included recycling as an aspect of their duties, particularly if the materials that they needed were hard to come by. Blacksmiths recycled metals to be used again and again (Moore-Colyer, 1990). Metal was particularly scarce, but needed for shoes for horses given that this was the main mode of long distance transportation (Moore-Colyer, 1990). The practice of metal recycling may in fact go back thousands of years, according to experts on early civilizations (Gale, 1997). Without the easy access to goods that is considered normal today, recycling was practiced by anyone who had the capacity to do so, including women who recycled bags and old clothing into quilts and clothes for their families (Zimring, 2009).
In general, with fewer materials available that might be found today, recycling was an ever-present feature of human life across culture and time (Thomas, 1997). There were very few materials that could not be found to have another use after their use was complete in one form, and with no easy way to access more individuals and communities did what they could to use materials and items again and again in new ways (Thomas, 1997). Even bitumen from oil was recycled in ancient Mesopotamia for its uses as an adhesive (Schwartz & Hollander, 2000).
In some cases it would appear that recycling concepts were lost. This can be seen in the study of the chemistry of ancient metal use, which provides insights with regard to new potential recycling methods (Sabatini, 2015).
These concepts of recycling were not organized or coordinated by authorities, but rather the obvious means of accessing needed goods. As the rise of manufacturing and industrialization led to a more disposable society, there was a shift in thinking. Goods were recycled less, and a more pressing issue was that of waste disposal.
- American Disposal Systems. (2017). A Brief History of Recycling. Retrieved from: https://www.americandisposal.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-recycling
- Diaz, L. F., & De Bertoldi, M. (2007). History of composting. Waste Management Series, 8, 7-24.
- Gale, N. H. (1997). The isotopic composition of tin in some ancient metals and the recycling problem in metal provenancing. Archaeometry, 39(1), 71-82.
- Grabianowski, E. (2017). How Recycling Works. How Stuff Works. Retrieved from: http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/recycling1.htm
- Green, J. (1990). The Rittenhouse Mill and the Beginnings of Papermaking in America. The Library Company of Phil.
- Moore-Colyer, R. J. (1990). Blacksmiths, Farriers and Horses in Wales: An Historical Note. Folk Life, 29(1), 76-79.
- Sabatini, B. J. (2015). The As-Cu-Ni System: A Chemical Thermodynamic Model for Ancient Recycling. JOM, 67(12), 2984-2992.
- Schwartz, M., & Hollander, D. (2000). Annealing, distilling, reheating and recycling: bitumen processing in the Ancient Near East. Paléorient, 83-91.
- Silva, P. G., Borja, F., Zazo, C., Goy, J. L., Bardají, T., De Luque, L., … & Dabrio, C. J. (2005). Archaeoseismic record at the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia (Cádiz, south Spain). Tectonophysics, 408(1), 129-146.
- Thomas, V. M. (1997). Industrial ecology: towards closing the materials cycle. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 1(2), 149-151.
- Waxman, O.B. (2016). The History of Recycling in America Is More Complicated Than You May Think. Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/4568234/history-origins-recycling/
- Zahedieh, N. (2010). The Capital and the Colonies: London and the Atlantic Economy 1660-1700. Cambridge University Press.