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History of the Recycling World, Part 1

May 31, 2016

A local history buff recently asked me about the origins of “modern recycling”. He thought it stemmed largely from Earth Day and the green movement in the 1970s. My thoughts on recycling’s origins focused more on the impacts of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), landfill closures, and the establishment by state of goals for recycling. And then, of course, I figured the topic would make a great blog article. Not wanting to leave out the much longer history of recycling, I’ll review some of the highlights from the beginning.

I’m sure humans have been reusing things since the dawn of humankind. Among the earliest documented occurrences, however, came from Egypt. Paper recycling—or reuse, to be more precise—was started back in the First Egyptian Dynasty, when scribes would erase old papyrus documents so new documents could be written on them. And the ancient Romans developed the palimpsest, which at that time was a wax-coated tablet which could be smoothed over and then reused for writing. 

It is of course well known that the Chinese made paper from a range of fibers, including recycled rags and fishing nets. Reportedly inspired by wasps and bees, the Han dynasty Chinese court official Cai Lun is credited with being the inventor of the modern method of papermaking in 105 AD.

Japan offers the first documented recycling of waste paper in 1031 AD with its government decree that all waste paper had to be collected and re-pulped into new paper.

In 1690, paper recycling began in the Colonies at the Rittenhouse Mill near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As in old China, paper at the Mill was manufactured from fiber derived from recycled cotton and linen rags. During the 1750s Benjamin Franklin began using paper waste to make new paper.

In 1776 as the War of Independence was waged, the rebels became avid recyclers to provide material for fighting the war. Paul Revere, a silversmith by trade, promoted scrap metal collections for recycling. For example, iron kettles, pots, and a host of other metal items were melted down for armaments. General George Washington reportedly called for the reuse of old worn chain from frigates. And, of course, Benjamin Franklin recycled scrap paper for making Revolutionary documents.

As the new country grew, so did the use of paper. The Massachusetts House of Representatives even adopted a law requiring that all towns appoint an individual to be responsible for collecting rags for use in paper mills.

The first mill to manufacture paper from material other than cotton and linen rags was built in England in 1801. The process of deinking paper—extracting printing and writing ink from printed and written paper, and then converting this paper into pulp to make new paper—was patented by Matthias Koops. Unfortunately for Koops, his mill declared bankruptcy just two years after opening and soon closed. However, his methods of deinking and use of wood materials to produce paper were soon widely adopted in papermaking, as wood fiber was less expensive that cloth.

Some of today’s scrap recycling businesses got their start in the 1840s with the rise of the peddler trade. The early entrepreneurial merchants, typically impoverished recent immigrants, collected materials using backpacks and horsedrawn carts to resell pretty much anything that could be reused or recycled.

The first curbside paper recycling service was reportedly started in 1874 in Baltimore, Maryland.

New York City created an early version of a materials recovery facility in 1897. Trash was collected and transported to  “picking yards” where materials, including paper, metals, metals, carpet, burlap bags, twine, rubber, and other items are sorted for recycling and reuse

In the early 1900s, “waste as wealth” was coined as a way to promote recycling and reuse in order to show the value of items found in household trash.

The Chicago city jail system put prisoners to work collecting and sorting waste materials in 1916.

In Part 2 we’ll explore the expansion of recycling during the World Wars and on to the rise of modern recycling.

By Athena Lee Bradley


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