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The History of Recycling

Recycling has been heavily pushed recently in a bid to try and reduce the negative impact we’re having on the environment. However, believe it or not, recycling isn’t a new initiative. It’s actually been around for centuries, with some of the most recent recorded instances coming from Japan. So how has it developed over the years and what have the most recent developments been?


The history of recycling: A timeline

We’ll be taking you back in time to discover how recycling has become more commonplace in today’s world. From the first paper mills and bottle banks to how materials were recycling during both World War One and World War Two, here’s a timeline of recycling history:


Japan in 1031 – first recorded use of paper recycling

As the Japanese Imperial Court fell during the Heian Period, paper production no longer remained a state-controlled process. In fact, it gradually became absorbed into normal, common society. This meant that private estate owners built paper mills specifically to start up paper production. 

This, in turn, created jobs for the general public who were tasked with creating paper for use by everyone. As such, it wasn’t long before they worked out that paper could, in fact, be reused and repurposed to create the same product again and again, without having to use brand new materials.


Philadelphia, USA in 1690 – America’s first paper mill was built

Built by William Rittenhouse, a German-born architect, America’s first paper mill was aptly named the Rittenhosue Mill. It was able to take on old fabrics, rags, cloths, cotton and linen in order to create recycled paper. Once it was produced, it would be bought and used by printing and publication companies to produce newspapers, books, writing paper and more. The Rittenhouse mill operated right up until the mid 1800’s and remained part of the Rittenhouse family industry for the best part of a hundred years.


New York City, USA in 1776 – metal recycling began

American independence sparked the first case of metal recycling in order to produce guns and artillery for the war effort against the British. In New York City at that time, there was a metal statue of King George III that was ripped out and melted down in order to manufacture around 42,088 bullets. However, not all of the statue was melted down as some parts had been removed and taken away by mob members.


West Yorkshire, UK in 1813 – ‘The Shoddy Process’ was born

Invented by Benjamin Law, The Shoddy Process involved producing recycled wool from old clothes, fabrics, rags and cloths. The fabrics were ground down finely in order for it to be re-spun into yarn. The Shoddy Process took off in Britain, with Bately in West Yorkshire producing approximately 7,000 tonnes of recycled wool every single year.


London, UK in 1891 – disused items were collected and reused, a scheme dubbed ‘Darkest England’

William Booth founded the Salvation Army in 1865, but he also devised a specific scheme to help the poorest of households throughout London – The Darkest England scheme. This allowed unskilled labour workers to be employed as house clearers, ridding properties of unwanted or broken items. 

These workers became known, formally, as the Household Salvage Brigade. The items that were collected were then taken to a location close to Battersea Bridge, which was an area that Booth had rented. Objects could then be sorted through, repaired, repurposed and then given to those who needed it most.


New York City, USA in 1897 – the city’s first materials recovery facility was built

This came as a result of a decree that was made in relation to recycling two years earlier. The city’s first materials recovery facility allowed a wide range of materials to be discarded by their owners and then sorted, separated and recycled by those who worked at the facility, much like how it was today. Materials were sorted into various categories, including paper, metal, fabrics and more.


Chicago, USA in 1904 – the first aluminium recycling plants began to open in America

Despite this initiative being sparked off in 1886 with the creation of the Hall-Héroult process, it was until 1904 when aluminium recycling plants became more commonplace throughout the USA. In turn, it led to the first dedicated aluminium recycling plant being opened in Illinois, Chicago.


Recycling during wartime – 1915-1945

Both World Wars required members of the public to be more careful about what they threw away. It meant that people were repairing items rather than throwing them away and replacing them. This was one of the first instances where reusing the same items became more favourable, but this wasn’t done with the environment in mind. 

With rations on the up, inflation rising and money dwindling across the world, households had no choice but to be more frugal when it came to cost-saving, especially with regards to keeping a family warm and fed. People were also asked to take cooking fat to local meat sellers so it could be reused to make fuel for explosives.


North America in 1955 – recycling popularity experienced a slump thanks to ‘Throwaway Living’

Recycling hasn’t always been a popular venture. In 1955, an article was published in LIFE Magazine that was entitled ‘Throwaway Living’. This piece of content encouraged the use of single-use items as opposed to reusing the same thing over and over again. It claimed that single-use items were more convenient and a necessary part of the modern world. 

As such, people started to use materials such as cling film to keep food fresh instead of putting it in reusable tupperware boxes, for example. In fact, the article was so effective that littering increased tenfold without a second thought for the wildlife, ecosystems or environment as a whole.


North America in 1970 – the ‘Mobius Loop’ recycling logo started to be used

At the turn of a new decade, the Container Corporation of America held a competition with an aim to find and use an effective-yet-timeless recycling symbol that could be used around the world. Gary Anderson, a 23 year-old engineering student submitted his interpretation of a simple recycling logo – the Mobius Loop. This won the competition, earning him $2,000 in prize money. This logo is still being used today across the globe.


South Yorkshire, UK in 1977 – the first bottle bank in Britain opened

On 6th June 1977, the first bottle bank was utilised in the UK by a man named Stanley Race. He dropped an empty jar into the void to kickstart the eventual nationwide use of bottle banks. There was, and still is, a bin for different coloured glass so that it can be quickly sorted and processed to make new glass items, whether it be cups or jugs or new bottles or jars. 


Canada in 1983 – the blue box recycling system was introduced

In Ontario, the blue box recycling system became the new norm. It was an efficient way of collecting, sorting and processing recyclable household waste. It made it far more quick and simple for domestic users to recycle a wide range of items. As such, it was adopted across the world. Some of the materials that can be recycled in this way, even now, are as follows:

  • Plastic
  • Paper
  • Glass
  • Aluminium
  • Steel
  • Cardboard
  • Fabrics 
  • Food/compostables


Switzerland in 1991 – the recycling of electronic waste became more commonplace

As the 1980’s and 1990’s saw a huge increase in the number of electrical items that were being bought and sold throughout the globe. It then meant that, as the years went on, people were looking to trade in old electrical products for new releases. But what did they do with the old equipment? 

By 1991 in Switzerland, there was a move to make recycling electronics more commonplace, and it succeeded. It was decided that waste electronic items would be collected and recycled, for free. Starting with old fridges and freezers, the company soon branched out to more varied pieces of electrical equipment, such as computers, stereos and games consoles, for example.


Europe in 2003 – WEEE recycling was officially laid out in European law

With Switzerland kickstarting the recycling of electronic products, it wasn’t until 2003 that the directive was adopted on a large scale. It was written into European law and goals were set out for members of the EU in order to improve electronic recycling numbers. Since 2003, the directive has experienced several revisions, with the UK introducing its own expanded variant (The Waste Electrical and Electronic Regulation) in 2006.


England, UK in 2003 – the Household Waste Recycling Act becomes part of legislation

This recycling legislation ensured that local authorities in England provided every single household in the country with the collection of two different types of recyclable materials by 2010, at least. This meant that households went from having one general bin to another that could take garden waste, for example. This would then be collected and processed for use in the local parks. Eventually, households were provided with recycling bins where they could dispose of paper, cardboard, glass and tins in an eco-friendly manner.


North America in 2006 – Dell computing company rolls out a free recycling programme

Dell, a popular and relatively new computing company at the time, introduced a free recycling programme for its own products. This allowed the manufacturer to retrieve spare parts that were in good condition to be used in refurbished models that could be sold onto the consumer for a cheaper price than their brand new computers. Dell was the first company to do this, blazing the trail for other companies, like Sony and Apple, to eventually do the same.


England, UK in 2015 – the 5p plastic bag charge came into effect

To reduce the amount of plastic bags consumers were using, there was a 5p bag charge that was applied if someone wanted to purchase a bag instead of bringing their own from home. As of 21st May 2021, the price for a plastic bag rose to 10p, inclusive of VAT, according to Gov.uk.


Other recent recycling developments

In addition to the recycling timeline, there have been other, recent changes that have been made to help push the recycling initiative, from big name brands to household practices. According to the NERC (Northeast Recycling Council), in 2011, California undertook a goal to up the state’s recycling rate to a whopping 75% by 2020. 

One year later, San Francisco announced that it had reached an 80% diversion rate when it came to the waste they were receiving and, subsequently, disposing of. This puts San Francisco, alone, 8 years ahead of schedule, with 5% more waste being diverted than initially planned for, which is a major achievement for the recycling initiative. 

McDonalds also replaced their Styrofoam cups for paper ones in 2012, which is far easier and more likely to break down over a shorter period of time. Also, paper is less likely to end up in landfill as it’s so easy to recycle either in a commercial or domestic setting.

For 2018/2019 in England alone, the total household waste volume was 23 million metric tonnes. This equates to around 394kg per person. The public sector spent around £8.32 billion in waste management services and processes. However, 90% of those who live in Britain have reported recycling plastic and glass, more so over other materials, to help reduce their carbon footprints. 

In 2021, 75% of Britons said they planned to make more eco-friendly changes and choices to help minimise their overall impact on the environment. But where you might think this is all talk, there have been some positive changes over the years. In 2018/2019, the residual household waste volume was almost half what it was for 2000/2001.

Finder also reported that the most common littered materials found on UK beaches is either plastic or polystyrene, with plastic being four times more common than glass – the second most common littered material to be found on UK beaches. This led to country-wide disgust and subsequently, 84% of those who were asked said that they would support the ban of disposable coffee cups.

In 2021, plans were run by the British public to open recycling deposits, where money is given back to those who use and recycle as much as they can. The idea grew to be so popular that 58% of Britons who were asked said that they’d use the deposit scheme if it was set up. This goes to show that, with the right incentives in place, we could make a considerable difference to the environment.



Willshee’s are pleased to have a fully-trained, highly-skilled team of specialists on hand who will aim to recycle 100% of the waste we collect, whether it be commercial or domestic. No matter what your waste management needs are, from skip hire to hazardous waste removal, you can rest assured that we’ll have the facilities available to be able to help. For more information about how we can help you today, get in touch with a member of our dedicated team today – we’re always happy to hear from you.


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