​A Quick History of Recycling in America, Part 2 - Waste Stickers
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​A Quick History of Recycling in America, Part 2

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In the first part of this article about recycling in America, many of the aspects we touched on wouldn’t exactly fall into the “toss the plastic bottle into the bin with the recycling label on it” category. In fact, when you look at how the Native Americans or early European settlers “recycled,” it was all about reusing what you had because there was no other choice. That mentality certainly showed up again during the Great Depression, where once-discarded items such as food containers would be used again and again until they gave out completely.

But those certainly aren’t what we think of as recycling today as we’re surrounded by ubiquitous recycling labels. Sometimes recycling goes beyond the need to recycle materials and begins to tug at the heartstrings of American citizens. Let’s take a look at the birth of the modern recycling movement in our country.

World War II

The first mass recycling effort in the United States occurred because of World War II, and here are the posters to prove it. The government was collecting dozens of items that could be used in the war effort, most notably scrap metal (for planes), silk (for parachutes), and fats (for explosives!). Copper was so important to the war effort that it was removed from all pennies in 1943, right in the middle of the war. With overseas supplies of some materials cut off, everyone was encouraged to recycle as much as possible. This was going far beyond the reuse that people were accustomed to and was much closer to what we’d think of as recycling today.

Not everything that was collected was recycled, unfortunately. Historians have discovered that much of the material was stockpiled and went unused, and that some of what was recycled was never meant to used at all. Why? Propaganda. Getting people in America involved in the war was a way to get them behind it. If someone feels that they are part of something, they’re more likely to speak highly of US involvement, buy war bonds, or even enlist themselves. Still, without a doubt the recycling campaign of World War II was a success no matter how you look at it.

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Mass Consumption

Americans were forced to go from casual reuse to forced reuse thanks to the Great Depression. Then they were asked to give up potentially-valuable scrap metal to aid the war effort. So when the economy picked up after World War II, they were ready to embrace the consumerist mentality. More and more items came in single-use containers (Spam was a huge hit during and after World War II), and most GI’s returning from World War II were much more concerned about making a living than about how much refuse was going to the landfill. And after seeing the mass destruction that war caused, they weren’t concerned about small-scale de-beautification as they tossed that Coke bottle out the window on the way to the park.

Litter was becoming a problem in public spaces, and in 1953 Keep America Beautiful was created by the US government and some of the largest producers of disposable containers, including Pepsi and Coke. This coalition was, and is still today, focused on reducing waste and keeping litter out of public areas. The program truly came into its own in 1971 when it started the “Crying Indian” campaign, which brought environmental problems to the public conscious.

Earth Day

By the late 1960’s, what we were consuming and doing to the planet was catching up to us. Refuse in larger cities had to be transported farther and farther away to find a landfill that would take it. Deforestation across the world, thanks to the effects of Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War, was bringing attention to the environment. The book Silent Spring was published in 1962, bringing informed the public about the effects of DDT and how chemicals stay in the environment and work their way through the food chain.

People were starting to figure out that humans were having a lasting effect on the environment. After all, who wants to live on a barren plain surrounded by trash? That lead to the first Earth Day in 1970. Shortly thereafter a large company that dealt in recycled paperboard realized the need for a symbol that would identify items that could be recycled. They sponsored an art contest which was won by a college student named Gary Anderson, and the recycling symbol was born. This symbol...yes, it’s the one you’re thinking of, much the same as you’ll find on our recycling decals and stickers. While there are many variants, this symbol is recognizable all over the world as a way to express what is recyclable and where it should be placed when you’re done with it.

Curbside Recycling

Thanks to the Keep America Beautiful campaign and the popularity of Earth Day, people started to get the idea of recycling. They were being informed about the efforts it took to create the containers they used, whether it was the extraction of oil from the ground or the destruction of land in order to dig for metals. Public recycling — ones that relying on people’s altruistic interest in recycling without any monetary gain — started up in the early 1970s in larger communities. Most of the time it required the public to take what they wanted to a central location.

As more and more materials were able to be recycled and interest in environmentalism grew, communities began investing in curbside recycling. This increased the amount of recycling being performed by the average household, and increased the amount of recycling bin stickers that we sell as well! (We’ve been selling recycling labels for more than 40 years). While recycling often costs the community money, most people are in favor of the positive environmental effects that it offers.

The title of this article is called “A Quick History of Recycling in America,” but after two blogs and eight different examples of recycling it’s been far from “quick.” Hey, it’s still shorter than a book on the subject! There’s no doubt that recycling is an interesting topic, and we’re happy to be a part of it as we supply companies, landlords, cities, and towns with the highest quality recycling bin stickers around. Find exactly what you’re looking for right here.



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