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The History of Waste and Recycling

Recycling is a part of our everyday lives – but do you know how it all started? Although the recycling process as we know it only began about 40 years ago, the concept of reusing materials has been around for thousands of years.

In 1031 A.D., the first evidence of recycling was recorded. The Japanese shredded their old documents and records, and remade them into new sheets of paper; selling them through mom-and-pop stores around the country. All over the world, people often reused the containers their goods came in as a way to save money. Once people discovered the money to be made in selling raw materials, the modern-day recycling industry began.

The idea of waste before the industrial revolution was very different than our current idea of waste. Waste only included organics; wood, ash, textiles, and food waste. Fabrics, broken tools, pottery, and furniture was repaired and repurposed as many times as possible. There was always an alternate use for an item – tattered clothing could be remade into rags, and broken pottery could be remade into new pottery (think mosaic-style). The idea that something was broken and therefore garbage is a new-school idea, as a result of our consumer society.

Waste that was non-compostable was either thrown into the street where it piled up or brought to a dump site where it was thrown in a pit and covered in soil once full. Waste was commonly burned as well.

Throwing trash into the streets worked for a few centuries until it proved to be a hazard in the middle ages. The decomposing trash lining the streets attracted rats, which aided in spreading the bubonic plague which killed an estimated 25 million people.

In 1354, King Edward III implemented ‘rakers’; people who were hired to remove trash from the streets on a weekly basis. These rakers brought the waste to the Thames River to dump it.

In 1388, Britain outlawed the disposal of waste in public waterways and ditches.

Fast forward to 1864, health officials in Tennessee were made aware of the correlation between the Yellow Fever epidemic and the garbage rotting around the public streets. The public was then urged to take their garbage to designated spots on the outskirts of town – similar to current day landfills.

At this point, waste disposal was less about being sustainable and more about lowering the health risks to the public. The majority of the waste in these days was still organic, as plastic and excessive packaging had yet to be created and mass produced.

In 1897, New York City opened one of the first Material Recovery Facilities. Valuable materials from the trash were brought here, sorted, and then reused by the public. In-demand materials of the day included rubber, burlap, and even horse hair.

In the early 20th century, pop manufacturers began providing deposit returns for those who brought back their empty bottles. Some bottles were making up to twenty trips back and forth because people wanted their five cent deposit back. This reinforced the idea that products – namely containers – can be reused a number of times. In addition, the material had value. This lessened the cost to the manufacturers and incentivized the recycling process to the general public. The idea of reusing old material instead of using raw materials to create products was a revolutionary way to save time, money, and energy.

In the mid-20th century, the focus of recycling changed from a way to save money, to a way to reduce waste and maximize the lifetime of a material. During WW2, tin cans, vinyl records, scrap metal, and rubber were some of the most popular items requested by the government. These items were bought up and used to create ammunition and other materials to assist the government with the war. Propaganda was advertised urging people to save their materials, and laws were even passed to prevent people from hoarding their own scrap metal.

At this point, westerners were aware of some of the benefits of reusing and recycling materials, but it was not commonplace. There were no curbside collection programs, nor were there blue bins in public places.

This all began to change in Ontario in the 1980’s. In 1983, the city of Kitchener-Waterloo mandated the first curbside recycling program, followed by Mississauga in 1986. The colour blue was chosen to stand out while sitting on the curb, and the size of the boxes were specifically made so the kids of the day wouldn’t steal them and use them to store their records.

The blue box project only seemed to grow as time went on. By 1994, the Ontario government passed O. Reg 101/94: a regulation stating that each municipality with a population greater than 5,000 must establish a blue box program in their community. This kick-started the modern-day concept of recycling. Now in Ontario, there are recycling receptacles in nearly every public place and successful blue box programs in nearly every municipality.

Quinte Waste Solutions was a part of this change. Our program has been in place since the 1990s, created by the Centre and South Hastings Waste Services Board. Soon after, the curbside blue box program rolled out to households in the area. As we move towards a more sustainable society, Quinte Waste Solutions has included hazardous waste disposal and electronic recycling as a part of our programs. What do you think is the future of waste disposal and recycling?