The history of recycling might be said to go back millennia but what we mean by it, can be said to come from the 1960’s.

Recycling has had roughly three phases. Before 1960, then before 2018 and after 2018.

Before 1960, garbage in the United States was collected mostly in small dump trucks by small mom and pop garbage companies. It was entirely mixed. It could include a ton of apple scraps, broken appliances, clothing and bottles of solvents or chemicals. It was all mixed together and thrown into a local dump.

In the 1960’s, the environmental movement started to come together. Computers were beginning to allow increasing business management. Two large garbage companies, Waste Management and Browning-Ferris, saw the possibility of taking over and assembling large garbage consortia by taking over and incorporating the small companies. Suddenly huge amounts of garbage could be seen flowing into huge dumps in “waste streams”. Environmentalists became desperate to “do something” about these streams. The first idea they had was to grab usable items from the waste streams and find ways to reuse them. This became recycling. Manufacturers could see the possibility that their operations might become regulated, an anathema in their terms. To stave that off, the newly emerging recycling was a godsend. Manufacturers began to support recycling with propaganda and finances, a program that has continued to today.

The past sixty or so years have proven that recycling will never provide reuse greater than 5-10 percent, and usually 1-3 percent of the incoming wastes. Under normal circumstances, recycling would have been dismissed as an abysmal failure, but the flood of support and propaganda and money coming from industry spread the notions of recycling worldwide and buoyed it up continually.

The reason why recycling is so inadequate is quite obvious. Goods of every description are being made to fail early and to be discarded. It is extraordinarily difficult to divert them from this fate. The missing ingredient is new designs for goods that makes them intentionally to be reused perpetually. Recycling cannot succeed under current laws. In most of the world, goods are made if they can create a profit for their makers. Nothing but profit matters – not damage to humans, animals, climate or oceans. These damages are considered to be external to the profit source and available to be made use of freely. Thus the discard of expensive goods, barely used, is artificially cheapened. Even if recycling fails, the loss of high quality goods is easily dismissed.

Here is an article from NPR on the history of recyclng and the changes in 2018.