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.
Recycling is a process. It exists not because of sentiment, but because the systems of industrial production and disposal that have developed over the past two centuries have found that reclaiming post-industrial and post-consumer materials is a better use of time, energy, and money than harvesting virgin resources. I elaborate on this history in Cash for Your Trash.
Recycling programs have their limits. Municipal recycling systems struggle with the hazards of manufactured goods that were not designed with disassembly in mind. Efforts to restrict problematic materials (such as New York City’s attempted ordinance to ban polystyrene food containers) face well-financed campaigns by industries resistant to taking producer responsibility for their materials. Since the 1950s, such industries have promoted the emergence of recycling collection systems to shift the burdens of waste away from producers. Design decisions (such as the shift from reusable glass bottles to disposable PET bottles) now burden recycling programs rather than Coke or Pepsi.
But recycling endures and grows. It does so because the markets for salvaged material in industrial society endure. The markets rise and fall; lower prices for copper and steel in 2015 due to problems in the Chinese economy follow price declines during the global economic meltdown of late 2008, and previous recessions and depressions dating back to the nineteenth century. Economic history suggests the decline is temporary; recycling is big business because squandering the value of discards in landfills and waterways is inefficient.
The hazards and efficiencies of recycling can always improve. Designing goods for recycling (by reducing the use of toxic or unrecyclable materials, as well as making separating of materials from the finished product easy) will allow recyclers to safely and successfully return materials to production. These measures will improve a resilient practice that has thrived at a large scale since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Human societies have recycled for millennia and the growth of this practice since the advent of mass production and disposal of industrial goods represents a rational response to what would otherwise be the squandering of value in unprecedented mountains of discards. Any analysis of waste management practices that does not recognize this history is a waste of time.
Last winter, Brian Balogh of the BackStory podcast interviewed me for an episode on the history of waste. Now, the episode (including that interview as well as ones with fellow waste scholars Robin Nagle, Catherine McNeur, Brett Mizelle, Bart Elmore, and David Sklansky as well as recycling logo designer Gary Anderson) is available to hear.
If you’re curious about my family’s story as it relates to this history (and also want to hear my voice decay), click the link, as the American History Guys chose to use the part where I discuss what prompted me to write Cash for Your Trash (and much of that book’s second and third chapters).
Brian Balogh also gets an egregious pun (and my reaction to said pun) onto the podcast.