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Eco History: The Life Cycle of Recycle

Emily Plucinak
Carver County Historical Society

Reduce, reuse, recycle. We have known the old adage since grade-school, seen the triangular-shaped symbol on the bottom of plastic containers, and have even crushed soda cans and brought them to our local supermarket’s parking lot. A century ago, however, waste not, want not was the mindset. How much do we really know about environmentalism today, and how do our efforts compare to those of the past?

Historically, people did not think of recycling as recycling, rather people were resourceful with what they had. The fat left over from cooking was used to make soap, while crocks and jars were used and reused in place of the disposable cans and containers of today. Today, when our clothing is outdated or does not fit right, most people simply throw garments away or recycle them through hand-me-downs, Goodwills and garage sales. A century ago, however, even wealthy men and women reused clothing they had by remaking it into the newest style. When clothes were finally showing signs of wear and could no longer be recycled into a different garment, they became dish rags or quilts.

As people and technology change, our sustainability efforts have to change. Recycling began in the mid-twentieth century in response to lack of food and money. In the aftermath of the depression and the ongoing world wars, conservation was much needed. As America became more affluent and knowledgeable about sanitary practices and good hygiene, disposing of food and household items became easier and more acceptable. Now we live in a country that wastes more than any other time in history, and recycling is more of a necessity to save on landfill space. The changes can be easy and most cities offer recycling services. Decades ago, people may have focused on using every part of every resource; today the focus is on reusing the resources we already have. However, we should also think more about wanting not as much either.

Read Up

Conserving the Environment (Opposing Viewpoints), Douglas Dupler, Green Haven Press, 2006.

Garbage and Recycling (Opposing Viewpoints), Helen Cothran, Green Haven Press, 2002.

Reducing and Recycling Waste: Improving Our Environment, Carol Inskipp, Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2005.

Recyling History

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