​A Quick History of Recycling in America, Part 1 - Waste Stickers
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​A Quick History of Recycling in America, Part 1

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"The idea that you threw stuff out when it wore out is a 20th century idea" — Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

Here at WasteStickers.com, some of our most popular stickers are recycling labels and decals. Sometimes we sell thousands to a city wanting to brand the recycling containers they bought for every resident, and other times it’s just a couple to a superintendent wanting to update a couple of recycling containers for their apartment complex. Either way, they’re engaging in a very old tradition of recycling in America that few even think about as the bins are used to identify where detergent bottles and Mountain Dew cans should be tossed.

Even if you’re here to purchase recycling bin stickers, you probably don’t know much about the history of recycling in America. Let’s take a look at history of recycling (and its close compatriot reuse) and how it’s changed over the centuries in our country.


Before we even get to America being called America, there was recycling going on with native people. Did the stone hammer splinter? The sharp edge it left might make a good knife. Did the horse pad wear out in a single spot? Use the good parts of that elk skin to fix the hole in the tipi. When you amassed very little in the way of materials goods and were traveling as many Native American tribes did, it simply made sense to use what was at hand. After all, the animal was mostly hunted for its meat; when you use an animal hide for a blanket or an antler for a tool, isn’t that the ultimate recycling effort?

Revolutionary America

When Europeans and others from across the ocean began to settle in North America, recycling wasn’t really a choice but a necessity. While there were many resources for them to take advantage of — timber, food, and stone — you have to think about the lack of metal that would have been available to them. The nearest factory that could smelt metal was thousands of miles away in England. (Pittsburg wouldn’t start producing steel until the 1830’s.) So even if they were in an iron-rich part of the country, there was no way of getting to it.

That meant that the only metal you had was what came over on boats. And when you’re at war with the country that supplied most of it, you’d better learn how to make use of what you have laying around! Much as the Native Americans did, European transplants would have had to take something that broke and turn it into sometime else. Sometimes that meant turning a broken steel wagon tire into a barrel hoop. Other times it could mean melting it down and reforming it into something else completely. It also means that Paul Revere's horseshoes were probably made from recycled English steel!

America Grows

As industry grew in America, so did the ability to reuse stuff that had outlasted its original purpose. After all, plastic didn’t exist yet, which meant that most mass-produced items tended to last a bit longer. You wouldn’t use a plastic bottle once and throw it away; you’d use a mason jar season after season to preserve the harvest. Also, international trade wasn’t in full swing in the 19th century, meaning that America was using what it had and wasn’t importing many commodities.

Recycling at this time was very much about “I have something that’s of no use to me, but someone else is willing to give me a tiny amount for it.” So you might save the bones from the butchered cow because someone might come down your farm road looking to buy them and turn them into fertilizer.

Bottles Deposits

Aluminum cans are pretty awesome. They’re easy to recycle, unbreakable, and lightweight (requiring few fossil fuels to transport). But they weren’t invented until 1957, and if you wanted a soda or beer before that you were going to be drinking it in a glass bottle.

Glass bottles weren’t cheap to make. At the beginning of the 20th century, the cost of the bottle was considerably more than the cost of the beverage inside. That’s where the idea of bottle deposits came in, where a person would put down money at the store in order to ensure that the bottle would be returned, at which time they’d get their money back. While this worked when bottles were more expensive, on 10 states in our nation currently have a bottle deposit program.

The Great Depression

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, reuse and recycling became an absolute necessity. Everyone would reuse anything they could, which meant that once a piece of clothing become unusable, it became patches for other items of clothing. A tin can that might have held a single serving of beans became the replacement for the glass drinking cup that broke, because people certainly couldn’t afford a new glass. The new can might also replace the baseball that went down into the sewer, and a new game was born!

In fact, many items at the time were advertised with their secondary use in mind. A cardboard oatmeal container might suggest using it as a lunch box (after all, your paper bag won’t hold up long before it gives out.) A sack of flour might have ideas on it for how to turn it into clothing. While most people of today will take refuse and reuse it for craft projects — think 2-liter bottle bird feeders — people of the great depression used the packaging because they had no other choice.

Sorry to leave you on such a “depressing” topic, but there’s a lot more to talk about when it comes to recycling in America. So far what we’ve talked about has fallen into the reuse part of “reduce, reuse, recycle” that you’ll see on some recycling decals. But next week something big happens that truly bring recycling into the modern era. Check back next time to find out how reclining really took off.

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