By M. Fidler and E. Lumpkin

Various forms of recycling have existed throughout time.  Archaeologists have traced recycling as far back as Byzantium (400 BC) when glass was being melted down for reuse.  Recycling has evolved exponentially throughout the ages but our understanding of the term has been shaped largely because of a few major historical events.

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The Industrial Revolution

Household recycling was commonplace before the mass production that came about during the industrial revolution. For example, evidence shows that dust and ash from wood fires were downcycled as a base material in brick making and metals and scrap bronze were collected and melted down for reuse. There were tremendous economic benefits associated with recycling-both commercially and domestically, it was cheaper to reuse items than to buy new.

Starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, recycling declined as the benefits of the industrial revolution swept the globe.  Machine manufacturing allowed for mass production, which drastically lowered production and buying costs.  These changes revolutionized the way people lived and often times, it was more convenient and less expensive to discard the old and purchase new.


In the years that followed, severe economic downturn resulted in the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequently, the Great Depression, which lasted in most countries until the early 1940s.  With steep unemployment and poverty rates, recycling was often a means of survival.  The depression ended with the start of World War II.  While the war restored the health of the American economy, material shortages and financial pressures meant that American households continued to get by on less and relied on conservation and recycling.   As much as it was an actual need, it also became an expression of patriotism.  There were campaigns in many countries urging people to donate metals and conserve fiber in contribution to war efforts.


In the 40s and 50s, interest in recycling waned, as land filling became a cheap way to dispose of trash, which was compounded by an economy that promoted buying new and buying more. The economic boom of the postwar years caused conservation to fade from the American consciousness.

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The 1960s was shaped by the Vietnam War and perhaps even more profoundly, by those at home protesting it. Out of the anti-War movement came the women’s movement and the environmental movement. Philip Shabecoff reflected on the time and described the American Environmental movement as a “broad social movement” that was attempting to build a “desperately needed but difficult and obstacle-strewn road” out of humankind’s increasingly polluted predicament.  In April 1970, the first “Earth Day” was held and new organizations formed to educate and unite the general public.  For the first time, books about all aspects of a “green” lifestyle” hit best sellers list.

Rising energy costs and significant energy savings associated with recycling continued to draw interest throughout the 1970s.  During this time, Rose Rowan came up with the idea of towing a recycling trailer behind a waste management truck.  This innovation led to the introduction of curbside collection in the late 1980s and 1990s.  The first city to mandate recycling was Woodbury, New Jersey. Other towns and cities soon followed suit, and today many cities in the U.S. make recycling a requirement.

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Mandates for the Masses

The population continues to grow exponentially and we are using up more resources than ever before.    Recycling programs have gained momentum largely because of government mandated legislation.  Mandatory collection laws have set recycling targets for cities in the form that a certain percentage of material must be diverted from the city’s waste streams.  Cities container deposit programs have been very successful and help meet some of these waste diversion targets.  These programs offer refunds for the return of certain containers typically glass, plastic and aluminum.  Another way cities are meeting these goals is by increasing bans on the disposal of certain materials as waste (old batteries, used oil etc).

Change Starts at Home

Terms like “going green” and “eco-friendly” are buzz words that are commonplace now.  This vocabulary is used very loosely these days but the general understanding is that sustainable living promotes a lifestyle that limits the carbon footprint on an individual basis by altering methods of energy consumption, transportation and diet.

Reducing waste, reusing and repurposing goods, and recycling are the three most basic ways sustainability happens in our kitchens.  According to the EPA website, here are the most successful ways to live more sustainably in the kitchen

Compost Organic Waste: Peels, skins and trimmings from fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags etc can be combined to make compost which can then be used as a natural fertilizer in lawns and gardens.

Recycling: This is generally a phrase that is associated with paper, glass and metals.  Community recycling programs target the recycling of these items that are then melted down for reuse. In addition to these standard methods of recycling, recycling water is can be very beneficial ofr agricultural and landscape irrigation and toilet flushing.

Reducing Waste on the Front End: There are some simple ways to prevent waste form coming into the home.  Buying in bulk saves money and reduces the packaging that comes along with smaller items.  Choosing fresh instead of packaged food eliminates cans, boxes or bags that then enter landfills. Using alternatives to single use items like plastic baggies, snack bags, paper plates, napkins and towels, and plastic utensils adds up significantly.

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One of the largest contributors to landfills is plastics.  According to Americans use 2,500,000 plastic bottles every hour.  A new revolution is recycling plastic bottles into T-Shirts.  Plastic bottles brought back to recycling plants are crushed into a consistency referred to as “flake”.  It is then melted down, poured into strips and spun into a threaded fiber similar to wool.

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Five plastic bottles equal ½ pound of flake, which costs 25 cents.  That ½ pound of flake can then be made into 1 XL T-Shirt, thus only costing 25 cents to make each T-shirt, as well as saving twice the amount of energy that an incinerator would have used.

This idea of turning plastic into clothing can revolutionize the environment if people would commit to recycling their plastics at home.  Another solution would be if a major corporation adopted the process.  Let’s take Costco as an example.  For those of you who don’t know, Costco is the largest membership warehouse club chain in the United States, with over 55 million members.  If Costco were to simply recycle the plastic bottles they sell, they would not only be saving energy and reducing waste; they would be creating more jobs at recycling plants, as well as making profit as they spun the plastic into thread that would then be used to create the clothing sold in their stores.   Since Costco is an exclusive club, members would then be aiding the process of recycling really without changing their normal shopping habits.

An Environmental Invention

By combining a typical kitchen appliance with a sustainable process, a new solution to recycling is created.   An example would be reinventing a typical garbage disposal.  Some people argue that the garbage disposal is actually a “green-machine” because it reduces the amount of organic waste sent to landfills.  But what if that garbage disposal actually was 100% green?  Instead of disposing wastes into the sewage pipes and possibly tainting the water system, it could dispose of waste into a subterranean compost bin, which would be accessible from the exterior of the house.   

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Americans are throwing out about 1,200 pounds of organic compostable garbage each year.  If owning a composting garbage disposal was as common as the typical garbage disposals today, the environmental impact would be remarkable.  Since homeowners would now be producing their own nutrient-rich soil without changing their kitchen habits, growing their own produce would be easier and more economical.  This would not only reduce the amount of organic waste accumulated, but also reduce the amount of packaging waste on store bought produce.

What’s Ahead?

In the years to come, we can only hope that more sustainable materials and organizations are created so that one can actually have a full functioning “Eco-Friendly” kitchen.  Some ideas have already been planted, but are yet to be put into production.  One example is the EkoKook kitchen from Faltazi, which successfully processes organic waste into fermented soil.

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A more detailed video of the EkoKook Kitchen can be seen at   Since people cannot be forced to change their everyday habits, solutions like the EkoKook Kitchen, the Composting Garbage Disposal, and the abundant use of Recycled Plastic should be made so people don’t have to change their everyday habits, they would be successfully recycling without error.  On average, it costs $75 per ton to incinerate waste, $50 to send it to a landfill, and only $30 to recycle it, so recycle!