The Long History of Recycling and Why it Needs to Change to Save Our Planet

The circular economy has its origins from the ancient worlds: Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and the Bronze Age. A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Broken ceramic vessels were not thrown away but were instead used to make tools in the site of Saruq Al Hadid, dating back to the Bronze Age (3000 to 1000 BC). Pompeii revealed that the Ancient Romans recycled rubbish; some walls were found to be constructed from pieces of tile and pottery as well as lumps of old mortar and plaster.

Meanwhile, glass chunks, fuel ash slag, and kiln fragments all indicate glass was recycled in the ancient city of Sagalassos during the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD. Whilst Japan holds the first recorded instance of paper recycling in the Heian Period (1031 AD).

Taking a leap forward in time to WWI and WWII, people were encouraged to recycle materials like paper and aluminium as resources were running low. For example, the public was instructed to take wasted cooking fats to their local butchers so that they could be recycled into fuel for explosives.

Wikimedia, A poster promoting Paper Salvage in the UK, 1939.

Catchy propaganda slogans were created to push people towards recycling, such as ‘Save the Wheat, Help the Fleet’ and ‘Food is a Weapon’. Metal was recycled in significant amounts to build ships, airplanes, and other equipment for war.

So, what has changed? The field of polymer chemistry introduced the world to plastic in 1907. Whilst a Styrofoam cup takes 50 years to biodegrade, a plastic bottle takes 450 years. In comparison, vegetables take five days to a month, paper takes two to five months and woollen socks take one to five years to biodegrade.

This issue is augmented as there are so many different types of plastic that means it is more difficult to separate, sort, and reprocess plastics. To add to the complication, a lot of plastic packaging consists of more than one type of polymer. For example, a plastic bottle and a food tray cannot be recycled together because they melt at different temperatures.

A reason to why recycling is not done nearly enough is that it needs to be profitable for a country to decide to do it in the first place. China’s new policy, the ‘National Sword’, created in December 2017 drastically changed the value of plastic by prohibiting 24 types of waste from entering the country.

China claimed that these materials were too contaminated, hence ‘hazardous’. China and Hong Kong went from buying 60% of the plastic waste exported by G7 countries during the first half of 2017, to taking less than 10% during the same period a year later.

However, this policy has a far darker story behind it. A documentary called ‘Plastic China’ was released in 2016, revealing the unsafe conditions of a family living and working within the midst of a plastic waste, household-recycling workshop. Waste is often burned or abandoned, which in turn contaminates rivers and oceans. A report by Greenpeace shows that these issues, especially regarding plastic, occur in Turkey and Malaysia too.

Part of our hope for the future of our planet lies with policy changes that focus on renewable recourses, more effective recycling and cutting down the use plastic. One example is how the UK in 2020 banned the supply of single-use plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds.

Hope also rests in the hands of innovation. For example, the New Raw is making 3D-printed street furniture using recycled plastic products, currently, seen on the streets of Thessaloniki. Also, the Landpack company is producing insulating materials from straws instead of polystyrene.