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History of Recycling [Timeline]

Posted on 25th September 2018 by Hintons

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You might have noticed the recent push for recycling – buoyed by media reports and greater public awareness across the globe. But the concept of recycling isn’t new, in fact, the idea of conservation of materials has been around for centuries, and has seen fluctuating success and popularity over the years. This timeline of recycling will take you through some of the key historical recycling events, to give you a brief overview of how recycling started and how it’s changed.

Who invented recycling?

Recycling has been a common process throughout human history – no one person can be associated with its creation.

When was recycling invented?

Human recycling dates back to ancient times. While the first recorded instance of paper recycling can be dated to 1031 in Japan, ancient cultures commonly reused everyday items long before this – mainly due to lack of resources and lengthy manufacturing processes.

History of Recycling [Timeline]

Japan – 1031 – The first recorded instance of paper recycling

During the decline of the Japanese Imperial court in the Heian Period, paper production moved away from the state’s control as workers gradually merged into common society. As a result, private estate owners built paper mills and hired those workers to continue making paper – and it wasn’t long until the process of reusing waste paper became common, in order to conserve materials and maximise output.

Philadelphia – 1690 – The Rittenhouse Mill

America’s first paper mill – built by German-born William Rittenhouse (Wilhelm Rittenhausen) – took old fabrics, cloths, cotton and linen to produce recycled paper that would be used for printing and publication. The mill operated until the mid 1800s, and was the Rittenhouse family industry for the better part of a century.

New York City – 1776 – First Metal Recycling

The war for American independence from the British led to the first case of metal recycling in an effort to help the war effort. In New York City, a statue of King George III was torn down, melted and converted into bullets after a reading of the newly drafted Declaration of Independence. The statue constituted 42,088 bullets – it would have been more, had the head not been removed and other parts of the statue not requisitioned by members of the mob.

Batley, West Yorkshire – 1813 – ‘The Shoddy Process’

Benjamin Law invented the shoddy process – the creation of recycled wool from old clothes and rags. He organised the collection of these rags, grinding all he gathered so it could then be re-spun into yarn. The shoddy industry grew quickly, and by 1860 Batley was producing over 7,000 tonnes of recycled wool materials a year.

London – 1891 – William Booth’s ‘Darkest England’

After founding the Salvation Army in 1865, William Booth devised the Darkest England scheme to aid the poor across London. Part of this was the idea of employing unskilled poor laborers to salvage all manner of disused items from homes. They were known as ‘Our Household Salvage Brigade’. Discarded items would be taken to a ‘commodious wharf’ near Battersea Bridge – which Booth had rented – and items would then be sorted and reused wherever possible.

New York City – 1897 – Material Recovery Centre

Following a recycling decree for New York City residents two years prior, NYC’s first materials recovery facility was created. This allowed discarded materials to be sorted and separated into various categories, so recyclable materials such as metals, paper, fabrics and more could be recovered and reused.

Chicago – 1904 – First American Aluminium Can Recycling Plants Open

In the United States, large scale aluminium production began in 1886, with the creation of the Hall-Héroult process. This quickly led to the first aluminium can recycling plants, the first of which operated out of Chicago, Illinois in 1904.

Recycling in Wartime

The first and second World Wars forced an innovative approach to resource management. With materials running low, both the US and Great Britain canvassed the public for help. Recycling propaganda pushes (‘Salvage for Victory’ in the US, 1942) asked people to be smarter about what they threw away and how they separated waste. For example, people were instructed to take waste cooking fats to local meat dealers, so they could be recycled into fuel for explosives.

United States – 1955 – ‘Throwaway Living’

Recycling hasn’t always been on the upswing. In 1955, LIFE Magazine published a large story entitled ‘Throwaway Living’, pushing the idea that single-use items were the norm, and a necessary part of modern life. The celebratory – now foreboding – article helped to feed a less responsible way of thinking when it came to waste, leading to wide scale littering and a lack of guilt or forethought about the environment.

United States – 1970 – The Recycling ‘Mobius Loop’ Logo

The Container Corporation of America held a competition to find a new symbol for recycled paper. 23 year-old engineering student Gary Anderson entered with a simple logo based on arrows arcing around each other. He won, earning $2000, and the iconic logo has become ingrained into the public consciousness ever since.

Barnsley, South Yorkshire – 1977 – The UK’s First Bottle Bank

On the 6th June, 1977, Stanley Race dropped an empty jar into the very first glass recycling bank in the country. This first deposit kicked off the nationwide appearance of bottle banks, where the public can take empty bottles and jars to be recycled. Glass is an infinitely recyclable material, and the introduction of bottle banks is a pivotal moment which made glass recycling easy for everyone.

Canada – 1983 – The Blue Box Recycling System

In the city of Kitchener, Ontario, the blue box recycling system was introduced as a way of efficiently sorting and collecting household waste. The blue box system made it simple for the public to recycle plastic, paper, glass, aluminium, steel and other materials. The system was adopted and modified across the globe, and it remains in use to this day.

Switzerland – 1991 – The First Electronic Recycling Programme

It wasn’t until 1991 that there was a focus on the recycling of electronics. In Switzerland, IT and electronics importers gathered together to tackle the issue of electronic waste disposal. Discussions led to the development of the Swico recycling system, where waste electronic items would be collected and recycled free of charge to consumers. The system began with old refrigerators, but then grew to include all electronic waste.

The EU – 2003 – The WEEE Directive

The European Union set the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive (WEEE) as European law. The directive set goals for EU members to improve electronic recycling rates. Over the years, the directive has seen multiple revisions, and in 2006, the UK introduced its own, expanded variant: ‘the waste electrical and electronic regulations’.

England – 2003 – The Household Waste Recycling Act

With the introduction of this recycling legislation, it became law that local authorities in England provide every household with the collection of at least two types of recyclable materials by 2010.

United States – 2006 – Dell Develops Free Recycling Programme

Computer manufacturer Dell becomes the first company to provide free recycling for its products, leading to a greater focus on the manufacturer’s part in making more sustainable products and taking responsibility for their disposal. Other manufacturers, including Sony and Apple, have since done the same.

England – 2015 – 5p Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge

In a bid to reduce the use of plastic bags across the country, a five pence charge was introduced throughout shops in England, for anyone who wants to use a plastic bag. Since the introduction of the charge, plastic bag use has dropped by around 80% in England.


Hintons Waste provides efficient waste management services to commercial and domestic customers throughout London, Sutton, Croydon and the surrounding areas. From general waste clearance to dedicated electronic recycling, we recycle at least 90% of all waste we receive. To find out more about our efficient recycling services, simply contact us today.

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