History of Recycling: NE American POV

What is the history of recycling and how does automotive recycling fit into it?

When and why did people start recycling?

Put most simply, recycling is the process of converting waste materials into materials and objects with new or further uses. This practice has been around for centuries, with evidence of recycling starting as far back as ancient times. This blog post aims to explore the history of recycling, from ancient times to the present day. It intends to pay particular attention to where automotive recycling fits into this grand recycling story.

Ancient Times

Excavations performed by archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati in Pompeii uncovered piles of trash. They were able to trace refuse from sites in the city to de facto landfills. They were then able to trace this same refuse back again to different sites in the city. On this they comment, “We found that part of the city was built out of trash. The piles outside the walls weren’t material that’s been dumped to get rid of it. They’re outside the walls being collected and sorted to be resold inside the walls.” Things that were often reused include broken pottery, used to make new pottery, as well as metal, melted down to create new objects.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the concept of recycling continued to evolve. In Europe, the practice of rag-picking emerged, where people would collect and sort rags to be reused in papermaking. This practice was vital for the production of paper, which was in high demand during this period. Related, manuscripts from Japan and elsewhere reveal that paper itself was reused, as sheets of music can be found on the backside of ritual texts sometimes partially scraped or washed off.

Image of Medieval music repurposed as the back cover of a liturgical manuscript. Image borrowed from the FSU Special Collections https://www.lib.fsu.edu/special-collections.

Industrial Revolution (1760-1840)

In some sense, the idea of waste itself was invented alongside the industrial revolution. Pre-industrial revolution recycling was a way of life, only it wasn’t called that. It was simply the way things were. Most everything was reused or repaired and nothing was wasted. This was not because the threat of climate change loomed large but because everything was handmade. Goods were generally valued far more than they are today because people understood what it took to produce products. 

The Industrial Revolution marked a significant shift in the way waste was produced and managed. The invention of mass production techniques led to the creation of more waste materials, which posed a significant challenge for cities and towns. As a result, recycling became more important, and cities began to implement waste collection programs.

One of the first “material waste facilities” was opened in New York City in 1897; material, including rubber and burlap, was diverted from designated garbage disposal sites and brought here to be sorted and resold.

It should be noted that the first automobile was invented in the late 19th century and only began to be sold at the tail end of the century.

20th Century

In the early 20th century, the concept of recycling gained more attention. Bottle deposit returns reinforced the idea that products’ lives are meant to be maximized. The prosperity of the 1920s combined with the invention of assembly line-style production supported the rapid mass adoption of the automobile in America. And by rapid I mean rapid. 

Henry Ford’s Model T became available to the public in September 1908 and by May 1927 had sold 15 million cars.

Popularization of Automotive Recycling

1923 Ford Model T converted into a ‘doodle-bug’ tractor. Image from seller on http://www.classiccars.com (St. Louis, Missouri; 2018).

One should understand that the Model T was intended to be modified to fit its owner’s needs. Given the prevalence of farming in this time period combined with the lack of rural electrification, it made sense for the Model T to be adaptable. Beyond simple transport, many used their Fords for farming. 

Kits to convert one’s Model T (or later versions) to a tractor were widely available, as were books instructing owners on how to DIY one. Mechanic magazines advertised instructions to build a ‘handy henry’ or ‘doodle-bug’ from that “old Ford sitting in your backyard”*. 

It is now important to return to the definition of recycling established at the start of this article. Recycling is ‘the process of converting waste materials into materials and objects with new or further uses’. Automotive Recyclers are recycling pioneers  and the history of recycling would not be complete without them. Case closed.

With the growth of the automotive industry and its products’ applications, the demand for auto parts increased. With this, recycling became a more cost-effective and efficient way of obtaining parts. It wasn’t until the 1970s that peoples’ motivations would shift from what was most cost/energy efficient to a larger concern about reducing waste production.

World War II

During World War II (1939), recycling became essential to support the war effort. People were encouraged to recycle materials such as metal, for bullets, as well as rubber and paper for other purposes. This moment marks another shift in the American psyche towards recycling. Recycling moved away from purely economically motivated and became a heroic act for the benefit of the greater good. Car production was briefly halted during this time to divert resources to the war effort.

Environmental Movement of the 60s

The environmental movement started in the 1960s and gained momentum in the 1970s, with recycling as a core piece of the movement. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and with that, recycling became a more prominent issue. Around this time a man named Rose Rowan came up with the idea of garbage trucks towing recycling trailers behind them for hard rubbish. Cities began to establish recycling programs. Many claim that the first official curbside recycling program was implemented in 1973 in Woodbury, New Jersey. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed in 1976, which regulated hazardous waste and encouraged recycling. Curbside recycling programs would not hit Canada until the 1980s.

Present Day

Today, recycling is a vital part of waste management. Recycling programs are mandated in most localities and people are encouraged to recycle to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills. 

In theory, recycling not only helps conserve resources and reduce waste, but it also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are a key contributor to climate change.

Challenges of Today

While recycling is a crucial practice, the United States faces several challenges in its recycling efforts. One of the major issues is contamination, where non-recyclable materials mix with recyclables. This makes it difficult to separate and process them. Contamination often occurs due to improper sorting by consumers or outdated recycling infrastructure.

 Another issue is the lack of consistent recycling programs across different states and municipalities, leading to confusion and low recycling rates. Additionally, the cost of recycling is oftentimes higher than the cost of producing new materials, making it less economically feasible. Despite these challenges, there is a growing movement towards more sustainable practices. This include reducing consumption, improving domestic recycling infrastructure, reducing contamination, and promoting innovation around reuse.

Auto Recycling Today

Despite the U.S.’s more or less failed recycling system, the automotive recycling industry has remained as in demand as it was from the outset. A large part of the industry’s success is due to its economics of it: in most instances, it remains economically profitable to recycle and resell rather than produce the same parts new. Further, the fact that cars are made of so many disparate parts means that though an engine reaches the end of its useful life, other parts might not be ready to retire. 

Recycling in this sector predates the popularization of curbside programs and interestingly has not moved far from the original reason that people began recycling in the first place: to save money. Today the industry is proud of its place as the 16th largest industry in the U.S.. 

Perhaps it is because cars are inherently an enemy to environmentalists’ agendas, but the industry is slow to follow the shift in people’s motivations for recycling that occurred in the 70s. Thus far, most auto recyclers do not capitalize on their role as environmental pioneers in addressing the climate crisis. And yet, the industry recycles millions of tons of materials each year.

Today it is estimated that at least 85 percent of each retired automobile by weight will be put back into circulation. We have generations of auto recyclers to thank for this, some of whom have been a part of the industry for over a century!

History of Recycling: A Conclusion

In conclusion, recycling has a long and rich history that dates back to ancient times. From the reuse of broken pottery in ancient Rome to the modern-day curbside recycling program, recycling has evolved to become an essential part of waste management. 

Recycling has come a long way since its early days, and today it is an essential practice for reducing waste and conserving natural resources. Automotive recycling is just one example of how recycling can be an efficient and cost-effective way of obtaining materials. By recycling, we can help to create a more sustainable future for ourselves and for generations to come.

* Handy Man’s Home Manual, Third Edition. Greenwich, Connecticut: Modern Mechanix Publishing Company. 1936.

For more on this topic please visit our site page on Auto Recycling.