From Plants to Plastic: The Changing World of Recycling

An estimated 70% of our waste can be recycled or composted, yet only 14% of it is. Each UK household throws away over a tonne of waste each year, despite the fact that the vast majority think recycling worthwhile. With every tonne of what we buy requiring ten tonnes of resources to produce, a floating sea of garbage in the Pacific the size of Texas and the enormous strain on the environment that our waste creates, where does this costly dichotomy originate from? Emiliana Silvestri looks at the history.


For many growing up in post-war Britain, a time when there were fewer goods available, ‘making do’ was a way of life and reusing objects, like cardboard, tinfoil or glass jars, the norm. Talk to anyone in their 60s or 70s and the rapid growth of the country is put into stark relief. Not only is their resilience, resourcefulness and frugality astonishing, but one thing always comes up; the wastefulness of contemporary society. A glance further back through history reveals how our attitude to waste has evolved over time.


Pre-historic waste was essentially ash from dinner; bones, bodies and vegetable waste, and was disposed of in the ground where it composted and improved the soil. Ancient middens reveal small quantities of broken tools and pottery; anything that could be was repaired and reused. Populations were small (in 5000 B.C. the population of the British Isles was around 30,000) and their impact minimal. The transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer to sedentary farmer meant a more secure lifestyle, higher population densities and waste that couldn’t be conveniently left behind. And the beginning of the problem.


Until the Industrial Revolution, when labour availability became surpassed by material availability, reuse and recycling was crucial. There’s evidence of bronze scrap recycling in Wales 4000 years ago, and that

our ancestors composted organic waste. Recycling was necessary and made common sense; feeding vegetable wastes to livestock and using compost as fertiliser. Pigs, essentially edible In-sink- Erators, were and are an excellent way of disposing of municipal waste. Timber could be salvaged and reused for house and ship-building.


Recycling has always existed in the form of salvage, an age-old tradition that gave us the rag-and-bone men immortalised in the ‘70s comedy, Steptoe and Son. Recovered materials included metal, leather, paper, feathers and down, and textiles. Valuable commodities like gold have always been readily molten down and re-cast repeatedly (cf. the current cash for gold ads on TV). However, as cities grew, space decreased, and societies had to develop waste disposal systems. The ancient Greeks decreed that waste had to

be transported out of Athens and created possibly the first official landfill site in 500 B.C.


The 13th century saw the first legislation in England with a largely ignored law stipulating that the front of one’s house had to be rubbish free. Henry IV reinforced it law in the 1408, Shakespeare’s father was nicked for littering in 1515 and rag collection (for papermaking) was subsidised by Elizabeth 1st in 1588.


18thCentury industrialisation meant mass production and exponentially increased our waste output. This led to a sub-culture of Dickensian scavenging; ‘Toshers’ toiled in sewers for scraps of metal, coins and the odd jewel, ‘mud-larks’ scoured river banks at low tides and dustbins were just that; bins for coal dust that were collected and sifted with the coarser residue used for brick making.


Not long after, we began to recognise the beginnings of a problem, as indicated by the 1848 and 1875 Public Health Acts, and the establishment

of municipal refuse collection. Even then, much of the waste was salvaged, with glass and metal returned to merchants and hard core from incinerated residue being used as building material.


Here we find a key factor in recycling incentive; the degree to which a material is recycled has always reflected the economic value, perceived or practical, of the material.


In 1907 the Association of Cleansing Superintendents predicted a ‘municipal change from destruction to salvage in the near future’, something that has yet to happen nearly a century later, and in 1930 the Ministry of Health urged that ‘the system of dumping crude refuse without taking adequate precautions should not be allowed to continue’.


Then, after the recycling dependent, ‘make do’ privation of two world wars, the plastic ‘hit the fan’. Seen as a magic bullet to many of the modern world’s problems, its benefits – such as extended food preservation – meant

environmental consequences were overlooked. Plastic, cheap to produce and widely applied, led to the beginnings of our consumerist, ‘junk culture’ society, with heavily wrapped products designed to be thrown away, often with a built-in half life to ensure repeat custom.


Increased consumption inevitably generated an increase in manufacturing, industry, mining and quarrying, agricultural, chemical and food processing wastes, and, in turn, to the ‘70s rise in public waste awareness thanks to campaign groups like Friends of the Earth.


Growing awareness offset against the freefall, ‘greed is good’ consumption which characterised the ‘90s, with every successive government publishing ever more White Papers – 1990’s ‘This Common Inheritance’, ‘The Duty of Care’ in 1992, ‘Making waste Work’ in 1996, ‘A Way with Waste’ in ’99 and‘Waste Strategy 2000’ – all of which sought to set targets for household and industrial waste reduction, set levies per tonne of landfill and enforce legislation for regulating nasties like CFCs.


Now, of course, we know recycling is sensible and we want to do it, but we still chuck one third of our edible food away and fill an Albert Hall (seemingly the current unit of volume!) every hour with rubbish. Recycling

is just one part of a range of practices that, together, can cut back on what ends up as landfill and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Individual responsibility is paramount, but so is that of the manufacturer, producer and government. It seems sense that manufacturers use recycled materials to make their products, and consumers buy goods made with as much recycled content as possible. As ever, consumer power rules, and when we demand products made with recycled not virgin materials, the more materials will be redirected from landfills, saving natural resources and curbing global warming.


Technology can assist to boost the value of the recycled material – historically always an efficient cattle-prod – by reducing production costs; landfills can now be mined economically, since the density of non ferrous metals is often higher than in naturally occurring bauxite. For rare metals such as hafnium and indium, recycling is the only way to extend the lifetime of crucial sectors of the electronics industry. This is true also of gallium, tellurium and selenium, since all are past their production peak, leading to production shortages and escalating prices. Necessity always leads to invention, and if combined with compunction, i.e. legislation, and technology, human imagination, creativity and ingenuity will follow.