The word "recycling" makes many think of the little blue bins where we place our old cereal boxes, empty soda cans, and unneeded paper. But recycling actually takes many other forms: for example, the form of a golf course built on a landfill; a piece of modern art made from old tin cans; or World War II-era rubber recycling which helped the war effort. Likewise, many often think of it as a development related to the environmental movement that began in the 1970s and 1980s; in fact, it's somewhat older.
When did recycling first develop? Well, no one knows for sure, but it probably begins around the same time as permanent human civilizations do, which is, according to recent estimates, around twelve thousand years ago. Before that, for most of the history of homo sapiens (and other related humanoid species), humans lived in roving hunter-gatherer groups, and garbage wasn't an issue. But settled societies began circa 10,000 BCE, raising the problem of trash disposal for the first time. By 400 BCE, the ancient Athenians had established a municipal dump; four hundred years later, the Romans established the first "garbage trucks" - groups of two men who walked along the streets, chucking garbage into a wagon.
Compost is one of the oldest forms of recycling. Early in the history of agriculture, humans discovered that organic matter of various kinds - downed trees, dead plants, human and animal wastes - are useful for enriching soil. The nutrients that keep these organisms healthy, while alive, can enrich other life forms even in the organism's death. This discovery has been the backbone of agricultural life for thousands of years.
In the middle ages, recycling took an interesting form: paper was extremely rare and expensive, so ancient books and manuscripts were often reused for more contemporary purposes. Monasteries, for example, would take old books and turn them inside out, reusing them to make breviaries, catalogs, and other practical documents. In this way, researchers have uncovered portions of many once-lost works: take a medieval book apart, and you may find that it's made from scraps of a still-more-ancient work.
Recycling formally began in the United States as early as 1690, with a mill dedicated to the recycling of paper in Philadelphia established by the Rittenhouse family. The birth of metal recycling, meanwhile, may be bound up with the birth of the patriotism that led to the American Revolution: New York City patriots melted down a statue of Britain's King George III to make bullets, which were then used, of course, to undermine the power of that same king over the thirteen colonies. New York City provided the site of the first recycling center in the United States just over a century later, in 1897.
During the twentieth century, the aluminum can became all-but-ubiquitous. Introduced in 1935 by a Richmond, Virginia, beer company, the cans offered consumers a convenient, gulp-size serving of beverages while cutting down on the breakage and spillage of glass bottles. By 1968, however, they were producing such a disposal problem that the aluminum industry began recycling its wares. Aluminum recycling reduces the CO2 production involved in aluminum manufacture by ninety-five percent and reduces the need for the mining of virgin ore. During the 1970s, many states helped this process along by passing laws offering nickel- and dime-sized incentives to consumers for returning aluminum products.
University City, Missouri, was the first city to introduce city-wide curbside recycling in 1974. By the early 1990s, another United States city, San Francisco, had met its goal of recycling twenty-five percent of its wastes.
Other frequently recycled items include steel and glass. Bits of old buildings or cars are shredded by machines, sorted, melted down and refined again, then sold in sheets or coils. Twenty-five percent of US steel is recycled. Glass from jars and bottles (though less usually windows and lightbulbs) are also ground to bits, melted down and reformed.
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