In the 1800s, there were no blue recycling bins, no sorting, no recycling trucks rumbling down the alley. Recycling as we know it didn’t exist. But people were way better at it.

“People recycled far more than we do now,” says Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. If the elbows in a shirt wore out, you’d take the sleeves off, turn them inside out, and voila: new shirt. If a dress went out of style, you added new buttons or sent it back to the dressmaker to fashion a trendier frock. Eventually, the fabric would be turned into a quilt or a rag rug or just a rag.

“Before there was municipal solid waste disposal, stuff would pile up in your house if you didn’t reuse it,” Strasser points out. “In addition, people who made things had an understanding of the value of material goods that we don’t have at all. Literally, if everything you wore, sat on, or used in your house was something you made or your mother or uncle or the guy down the street made, you had a very different sense of value of material goods.”

Household manuals even featured discussions on how to repair glass, including using garlic as glue, she says.

Ragman, rag pickers
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Rag pickers of Paris, France, circa 1892.

The closest 19th-century equivalent to modern-day recycling? The ragman, Strasser says. The ragman went from house to house to buy old cloth for an international trade in rags to make into paper. Railroads largely put an end to the door-to-door rag collecting.

When garbage pickup started in the late 19th century, many cities separated reusable trash from garbage designated for a landfill. Just like today, workers sorted via conveyor belts as early as 1905. The cities sold the reusable trash to industries. And many individuals saved their organics to feed to animals.

But by the 1920s, source separation wasn’t happening. By then, not much was being recycled apart from metal at scrapyards.

“But really there was a relatively short period of time that people didn’t recycle,” Strasser says.

Recycling: From World War II to the 1960s

Recycling during WWII
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An early 1940s poster entitled 'Wanted For Victory' depicts a family as they sort 'waste paper, old rags, scap metals, [and] old rubber' for reuse in the war efforts.

During World War II, people recycled nylons, tin cans, cooking fats and even the tin in toothpaste tubes for the war effort.

And by the 1960s, the first recycling programs linked to people’s concern for the environment started popping up, says Martin Melosi, author of Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City. That’s when Rachel Carson and others were pushing the science of ecology and Lyndon B. Johnson started passing a lot of environmental legislation.

“As the environmental movement begins to take hold on a national scale, recycling was seen as a personal manifestation of helping the environment,” Melosi says. “There was a sense of connection to the environment, similar to how it is now for my grandkids,” he says.

In the early days of environmentally-bent recycling, the few people who did it carted everything to private recycling centers.

“It wasn't practical for the whole population, and people who were driving cars to bring stuff to recycling centers were polluting in a different way,” Melosi says.

Full Landfills Prompt Curbside Recycling in 1970s

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A woman recycling plastics in separate recycling containers at the Santa Monica Recycling Center, California, 1992.

Beyond the do-gooders, though, most people in the throw-away society of the time didn’t think too much about preservation or reducing use...until landfills started filling up in the 1970’s.

“Landfilling was the most popular form of disposal after World War II,” Melosi says, and recycling is a way to reduce tipping the balance. “It takes things out of the waste stream, preserving landfill space. So recycling begins to have an economic and strategic role, different from just saving the environment.”

Curbside recycling programs solved the convenience issue, although the prevalence varied from city to city. In 1960, just over 6 percent of municipal solid waste was recycled. Since then, recycling rates have increased to about 10 percent in 1980; 16 percent in 1990; 29 percent in 2000, and over 32 percent in 2023. That’s helped decrease the amount of waste going to landfills from 94 percent in 1960 to 52 percent of the amount generated in 2018.

The concept of Zero Waste took hold in the new millennium, challenging people to produce less waste by considering the front end of the problem—the disposable products people use instead of just the back end. Most waste-producing companies that were happy to support recycling didn’t hop on board the Zero Waste idea. Producing goods that leave a small environmental footprint is extremely challenging, Melosi says, and requires a complete culture shift.

“It’s fundamentally difficult to do,” he says.

Still, in some cases, the 19th century lessons have even become trendy: Rag paper is a popular choice for wedding invitations.

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