Wednesday is America Recycles Day. It’s a day that reveals the complex history of industry, consumer society, and our attitudes towards the environment.
Time magazine’s 2016 feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me. I encourage readers whose curiosity is whetted by our quotes to seek out Susan’s book Waste and Want, Bart’s book Citizen Coke, and my Cash for Your Trash for elaboration.
My 2017 post for the Organization of American Historians on the history of recycling. I allude to it in the footnotes, but Samantha MacBride’s Recycling Reconsidered is an indispensable book for understanding how the system of recycling functions (and does not function).
This 2016 episode of BackStory Radio featuring segments with Brett Mizelle and Catherine McNeur, Robin Nagle, David Sklansky, Elmore, and me provides more historical context for what and how we discard, and how private and public recycling programs are shaped by that history. The episode concludes with an interview of Gary Anderson, who designed the recycling logo that appears at the top of this post.
This Thursday, Steven Corey and I will discuss the past, present, and future of waste management, recycling, downcycling, and upcycling in a symposium for the Illinois Recycling Association.
Join the IRA for an entertaining evening of conversation about the history of waste reclamation, and how that history may inform a more sustainable future. Subjects will include many of the cool things we’ve made out of recycled material, from sports cars to guitars, as featured in Carl A. Zimring’s new book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective.
Dr. Zimring, professor at Pratt Institute, will be joined by Steven Corey, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Humanities, History and Social Sciences at Columbia College/Chicago. Dr. Corey served as curator for the noted exhibition “Garbage! The History and Politics of Trash in NYC” while completing his doctorate.
Join the Conversation:
Thursday, July 20 from 6 to 9 p.m.
Auditorium Building, 435 South Michigan Avenue, AUD #420
$35 general admission
$20 Student fee
I’ll discuss some of the ways aluminum has been upcycled, including in guitars, cars, and furniture like the designs Charles and Ray Eames made for Herman Miller (see the above image). For more information and to register, click here.
The Organization of American Historians asked me to write a brief post on the Process blog about the history of recycling. Here’s the lede:
In the popular imagination, recycling arose out of the modern environmental movement. Some associate recycling with efforts to to divert discards from landfills or with World War II scrap drives when the government mobilized resources for the war effort. But recycling’s history is both older and more complicated than either of those depictions.
Paul Revere recycled, though he did not use that word…
Read the rest, including discussion of curbside programs, wartime scrap drives, and the turn towards upcycling as a sustainable design strategy.
With ASEH bringing me back to Chicago this year, my good friend Mike Nowak has generously invited me back for a return appearance on Chicago’s longest-running environmental radio show on April 1. The Mike Nowak Show airs every Saturday from 10am-noon CT on WCGO-AM 1590 and listeners outside the Chicago metropolitan area can listen live at the link or click through later to hear the show as a podcast.
I’ll be on starting at 10:15, and we will likely talk about my new book Aluminum Upcycled, which I’ll bring to the Chicago Humanities Festival on April 29. Based on past experience, it is quite possible Mike and I will discuss the state of recycling and waste management in Chicago.
I will discuss my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (available now) at Pratt’s Sustainability Crash Course in Brooklyn Saturday afternoon March 25 from 1:30-2:20pm.
The Sustainability Crash Course runs from 9am to 5pm with a variety of talks and events at Pratt’s Brooklyn campus (200 Willoughby Avenue near the Clinton-Washington C station and the Classon G station). My book launch will be in Pratt’s Engineering Building at 1:30pm and last about 50 minutes. The event is free, but registration is required.
I will have copies of the book for sale ($30 cash or check, a discount from the $39.95 list price) at the event. Johns Hopkins University Press describes my history of sustainable design strategies this way:
Beginning in 1886 with the discovery of how to mass produce aluminum, the book examines the essential part the metal played in early aviation and the world wars, as well as the troubling expansion of aluminum as a material of mass disposal. Recognizing that scrap aluminum was as good as virgin material and much more affordable than newly engineered metal, designers in the postwar era used aluminum to manufacture highly prized artifacts. Zimring takes us on a tour of post-1940s design, examining the use of aluminum in cars, trucks, airplanes, furniture, and musical instruments from 1945 to 2015.
By viewing upcycling through the lens of one material, Zimring deepens our understanding of the history of recycling in industrial society. He also provides a historical perspective on contemporary sustainable design practices. Along the way, he challenges common assumptions about upcycling’s merits and adds a new dimension to recycling as a form of environmental absolution for the waste-related sins of the modern world. Raising fascinating questions of consumption, environment, and desire, Upcycling Aluminum is for anyone interested in industrial and environmental history, discard studies, engineering, product design, music history, or antiques.
November 15 is America Recycles Day, so I am popping in late with a link to Time magazine’s feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me.
Readers interested in the themes of this article may find expansion on several points in my book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers UP, 2005).
The 2014 Rachel Carson Center workshop Whose Waste? Whose Problem? revealed many fascinating perspectives on the topic of waste, and now several of these contributions (including articles by Tian Song, Michael Braungart, Zsuzsa Gille, Jutta Gutberlet, Stafania Gallini, Herbert Köpnick, and me, as well as a roundtable) are available in the new RCC Perspectives issue “A Future without Waste? Zero Waste in Theory and Practice.”
A PDF of the issue is free at this link.