The year is 2018. Wednesday evening in my living room on the sofa. I’m watching some medieval movie the name of which I don’t remember, because something else catches my eye. Have you ever watched a scene in such movies where there is a disastrous lack of swords before the epic battle scene, so they have to melt every piece of metal they can get their hands on? That’s what made me think … Isn’t that basically recycling? They use a necklace’s material and transform it into something different. Something new and useful. I had never really thought about how old the concept of recycling really is and which forms it had in past eras.

Why don’t you come with me on my journey through the history of recycling?

The Beginnings

My research takes me back to prehistoric times. The first to be ‘blamed’ for introducing recycling are indeed dinosaurs. Of course, T-Rex with his miniature arms did not melt any metal to build chain armour – although I really like the thought. 😉 The truth is much sadder: dinosaurs decomposed and thus produced different oils and gasses. Since this is not exactly what we understand under the term recycling, it’s rarely treated as such, but the basic idea is the same. Something that is no longer used is transformed into something else.

Around 500 B.C. recycling as we know it, is introduced in Athens. Authorities organised the first municipal dump programme in the western world dictating their people to discard of their waste at least one mile away from the city walls. It is a time when waste consists mainly of food leftovers, so nothing has to be separated. That changes with the invention of paper: the first country to recycle waste paper is Japan by collecting it and repulping it into new paper by the beginning of the 11th century. This process was further improved and due to the diversity of waste materials also complexed during the centuries to come.

Developing a Strategy

Recycling without a strategy works … but it could be so much easier. By the end of the 19th century, what is missing are clear structures, laws and processes that simplify the sorting of different waste as well as the reprocessing of the materials. So, it was about time in 1897 that New York City introduces “picking yards” where trash is sorted and separated into paper, metals, etc. In the early 1980s, the first curbside recycling project is implemented in Canada and it soon sweeps over to the U.S.

The Birth of the Can

Yes, I know that cans didn’t have their appearance yet … that’s because they took their time to enter our everyday lives. In 1795, Napoleon hosted a competition to develop a way of preserving food for his army. Fifteen years later, Nicolas Appert is declared winner of this competition because he invents a method of preserving food through sterilisation – as the clever can lovers among you might know, that’s the key principle of the canning process. In the same year, he receives a patent over pottery, glass and tinplated iron used as food containers. That’s the basis for our cans today.

Next, the production processes have to be simplified. In 1825, Thomas Kensett receives a patent for tinplated cans and in 1847, Allan Taylor receives one for a machine that stamps cylindrical can ends. Meanwhile, biscuits and cakes in decorated cans gain popularity in England. An important innovation, then, is the pendulum press, which increases production numbers from 5 – 6 cans per hour to 50 – 60. By the end of the 19th century, automatic can making machinery appears on the scene and finally, cans become an everyday companion and I can’t imagine my life and my recycling routines without them.

Introducing Cans to Their Infinite Lifecycle

We reached an important moment in the history of can recycling. Their production is easier than ever, but what do the people do with their empty cans? What we need now, is a functioning recycling cycle for cans.

By 1959, aluminium recycling is quite common but occupies only a small position in the recycling universe. Not anymore, when aluminium beverage cans become a thing and the need for a fixed recycling strategy suddenly is very urgent. The aluminium industry finds itself in a tight spot now and has to react. It does so by introducing a massive system for recycling and redeeming used beverage containers, so the infinite lifecycle of the can starts rolling. Soon, cans reach their status as the recycling champions with aluminium cans.

Today, cans have the highest recycling rates of all packaging materials: 74,7 % of metal packaging is recycled across Europe with even over 90 % in some countries. We owe this top rating to the efficient production cycle of the can, whose different steps fit together like puzzle pieces, though they were only developed and perfected after some time.

Of course, that’s not the complete history of recycling, because that could and already does fill entire books. But it’s a little insight and background knowledge on how recycling today has become such a smooth and easy process.

What’s your personal history of recycling? When did you start and how did it develop? Tell us in the comment section below! 🙂

Write A Comment