Memorandum submitted by History and Policy
The author is Dr Tim Cooper, Lecturer in History,
University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus, Penryn, Cornwall.
He is the author of "Challenging the `refuse
revolution': war, waste and the rediscovery of recycling, 1900-50"
published online by Historical Research and available at
This article examined efforts to recycle in municipal waste management
in the early twentieth century. He is also author of "Rags,
Bones and Recycling Bins" published in History Today,
Vol. 56, Issue 2 (2006) pp. 17-18.
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Politicians from all parties have
acknowledged the need to address the impact of waste on the environment.
Waste Strategy for England 2007 outlines possible
approaches to waste reduction and recycling. However it does so
largely without reference to the historical context of efforts
to control waste and increase recycling.
Knowledge of the historical context
will assist policymakers in identifying the origins of the waste
problem and some of the pitfalls associated with current efforts
to solve it.
Previous attempts to increase recycling
in Britain during the 1940s and 1970s both proved to be failures
after initial periods of brief success.
The causes of failure were complex,
but an unwillingness to confront the emergence of affluent, consumer
life-styles, and inadequate efforts to regulate the market in
waste products or to challenge key players such as the packaging
industry all contributed.
Future policy, if it is to be successful
in achieving "One Planet Living", will require a willingness
not just to mobilise actors around the widely accepted, emotive
rhetoric of "reduce, reuse, recycle", but must also
challenge those with established interests in the status quo.
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
1.1 Waste Strategy for England (WSE)
2007 outlines a series of ambitious aims with regard to waste
reduction and recycling and correctly emphasises the contribution
waste reduction must make to achieve "One Planet Living".
The document proposes to achieve waste reduction through a number
of means including:
(c) Increasing the efficiency of usage of existing
(d) Investment in waste collection and treatment
(e) Developing local authorities' waste management
(f) Encouraging a "shared responsibility"
between industry, consumers and the voluntary and government sectors
1.2 WSE 2007 puts forward proposals
without reference to the historical origins of the present issues
surrounding waste, resources and the environment. WSE 2007
does not recognise the attempts of previous governments to
address the issues of waste and resources, or the lessons that
might be learned from these.
1.3 This paper contributes lessons from
the history of waste in the twentieth century. These are:
(a) An outline of the historical origins and
causes of the present waste problem.
(b) An outline of previous policy efforts to
encourage greater recycling, and the reasons for their failure.
2. A BRIEF HISTORY
2.1 The character of the waste stream in
Britain changed dramatically during the twentieth century:
(a) In the early twentieth century dust and cinders
from household fires made up over 50% of household waste.
(b) From the 1930s packaging waste (paper, cellulose,
tins, glass, etc) formed a small but growing part of the waste
stream; reflecting the emergence of nascent affluence and consumerism.
(c) In the post-war era, dust declined rapidly
in importance as electricity and gas displaced coal as the main
sources of household heating.
(d) Plastics increased rapidly from the 1950s,
largely accompanying the growth of the supermarket and packaging
2.2 The history of waste in twentieth-century
Britain reflected more general trends in social and economic development.
However, historians have recently demonstrated that the emergence
of a "throwaway society" was also partly a consequence
of government policy, especially of a post-war electoral politics
that encouraged the pursuit of high standards of living.
2.3 The responsibility for coping with these
changes in the waste stream largely fell on local authorities
who had to respond quickly to constantly changing circumstances.
In general they proved remarkably adept at developing disposal
technologies to cope with the environmental and public health
issues surrounding waste disposal.
(a) The 1900s saw extensive investment in new
incinerator and waste-to-energy technology
(b) From the 1930s local authorities pioneered
investment in controlled tipping and land reclamation
(c) During the First and Second World Wars local
authorities pioneered systems of universal recycling (salvage)
(d) In the post war era there were experiments
in municipal composting
(e) These achievements occurred in spite of limited
intervention from central government, which was limited to a loose
legislative framework for provision of waste disposal services
2.4 Throughout the twentieth century local
authorities and waste professionals demonstrated consistent interest
in the potential of recycling as a source of local government
revenue. However, their ambitions were thwarted by unstable demand
from the market for secondary materials. Before the 1970s peacetime
governments showed little enthusiasm for interference in the private
industrial activity of scrap metal or waste paper merchants.
2.5 The scale of the municipal waste problem
grew quickly and changed so rapidly, especially in the wake of
the Second World War, that local authorities had no reasonable
alternative to the adoption of landfill for the large amounts
of domestic waste. Estimates of the growth of household waste
indicate the following:
(a) By the outbreak of the First World War about
9,000,000 tons of household refuse was collected annually.
(b) By the end of the Second World War about
15,000,000 tons was collected annually.
(c) By 2005-06, Defra estimates showed approximately
29,000,000 tons of municipal waste was collected annually.
2.6 These estimates of the weight of municipal
refuse in the twentieth century illustrate the remarkable growth
that took place. However, they hide the most important change,
which was a dramatic increase in the volume of waste. This was
the consequence of the decline of dense refuse elements like cinders
and dust and their replacement by relatively lightweight packaging
and consumer items.
2.7 The growing volume of domestic refuse
caused collection and disposal to become increasingly difficult
and expensive. The rising costs were borne almost exclusively
by consumers, although this was partially disguised through the
local tax system and the subsidisation of local by central government.
Consumers did not necessarily feel the full force of the costs
imposed by refuse disposal and producers none at all.
2.8 The innovation and growth-orientation
of the consumer economy resulted in a rapidly changing waste stream,
which prevented the establishment of recycling on a permanent
basis in the twentieth century. New waste problems often emerged
as soon as old ones had been addressed, demanding the development
of new recycling methods: eg plastics, mobile telephones.
Rapid social and economic change as well as
government policy contributed to the creation of a new municipal
waste stream in the twentieth century. The waste stream grew rapidly
in weight and volume and changed in composition. This presented
immense difficulties in terms of waste disposal and made it difficult
to establish a widespread and permanent recycling system.
3.1 The idea of a central government "waste
strategy" aimed at reducing waste and increasing recycling
is not new. At least twice in the twentieth-century governments
have attempted to develop a centrally guided policy aimed at increasing
levels of recycling and reducing waste:
(a) During the Second World War the National
Government (1940-45) used powers of compulsion to increase local
(b) The "War on Waste", a policy designed
and implemented by the Labour Government (1974-79) in response
to fears about finite resources.
3.2 In both the cases initial successes
met with eventual failure. Both efforts contain important lessons
if present efforts to increase recycling and reduce waste are
to prove sustainable in the long term.
4. WARTIME SALVAGE
4.1 During the inter-war years (1919-1938)
a series of new technologies for the large-scale sorting and recycling
of waste were developed by waste management professionals.
4.2 In some cases these technologies were adopted
by larger local authorities, such as Birmingham which built a
large recycling plant after the First World War. In general these
innovations were confined to the larger urban municipal authorities,
which could afford the capital and labour costs.
4.3 During the Second World War the National
Government in collaboration with the local authorities developed
a universal and successful recycling system in Britain. This was
a response to the temporary scarcity of raw materials caused by
the shortage of shipping space.
1. A specialist Salvage Department was created
within the Ministry of Supply (1939) charged with monitoring levels
of resource recovery from municipal waste and encouraging increases.
2. From 1941, councils with populations over
10,000 were compelled to organise salvage schemes.
3. Most salvage schemes were organised on an
ad hoc basis as simple add-ons to the general waste-collection
and disposal process
4. The shape of salvage was primarily determined
by local government, which organised household sorting or centralised
sorting according to local conditions.
5. Between 1939 and 1947 almost 9 million tons
of re-usable material were recovered, generating an income of
26 million pounds sterling for local councils.
4.4 Many experts and local authorities wished
to continue the salvage system into the post-war period. It was
widely believed that recycling could be made profitable and become
a means of paying for municipal waste disposal.
4.5 In the event salvage was allowed to
decline both relatively and absolutely in the period after 1950,
as can be illustrated by what happened to paper salvage
1. In 1942 62.1% of paper consumption was met
by salvage; in 1959 this had declined to 26.5%.
2. This decline had two causes:
(a) The absolute decline of municipal waste
paper collections from 433,664 tons to 392,240 tons, which reflected
a fall in demand for waste paper.
(b) The rapidly growing consumption of paper
from 1,408,000 tons in 1942, to 4,903,000 tons in 1959, which
resulted in a severe relative decline in waste recycling.
4.6 The decay of the wartime salvage network
therefore had two main causes: firstly, the decline in waste prices
in the post-war era; secondly, the return to high levels of consumption
in the post-war era.
4.7 Numerous historians have demonstrated
that the pursuit of affluence was a deliberate policy decision
made by both Labour and Conservative post-war governments largely
for electoral reasons. The waste problem of the late-twentieth
century consequently had political as well as social roots.
4.8 By 1968, 1,226 local authorities disposed
of waste primarily through landfill, whereas only 47 still ran
significant salvage systems.
A successful system of recycling was established
under the economic conditions prevailing in wartime Britain. It
was sustained by resource scarcity, high raw materials prices
and government intervention. However, with the pursuit of increasing
standards of living by all post-war governments, sustaining the
salvage system proved impracticable.
The 1960s and 1970s were a period marked
by the emergence of the new environmentalism. The Oil Crisis (1973)
brought to the fore fears of raw material shortages, which accentuated
the fears raised by the Club of Rome's report on resource depletion
Limits to Growth (1972). In 1974 the new Labour Government
responded to popular concerns with a green paper War on Waste:
A Policy for Reclamation. This outlined a series of policy
responses to the issues of waste and resource availability:
(c) A new Waste Management Advisory Council (WMAC)
to provide advice to industry on recycling, and to formulate policies
dealing with packaging, etc;
(d) Development of a joint producer-consumer
approach to waste reduction and recycling.
5.2. Unfortunately War on Waste failed
to effect any significant changes in waste generation or disposal
patterns, for the following reasons:
(a) The WMAC was largely staffed by industry
executives and local government officials. Although official policy
relied heavily on the voluntary sector it offered little meaningful
representation or engagement with voluntary groups;
(b) The strength of industry representation and
lobbying prevented the WMAC offering the kind of radical policy
initiatives necessary to cope with new problems like packaging
waste. This caused further disillusionment among voluntary and
(c) War on Waste explicitly limited government
intervention to the areas of research and development and information/education.
The failure to develop any means of intervening in the waste industry
to set or amend price levels in order to create sustainably high
levels of recycling proved fatal to embedding significant change
in the waste management system.
The 1970s provided an opportunity to develop
a new approach to waste. However, the government prioritised the
needs of industry in the policy process and placed policy making
in the hands of the WMAC, rather than voluntary or environmental
bodies. These actions ensured that radical policies, required
to deal with issues like packaging waste or the creation of a
sustainable market for waste materials, could not be developed.
A moment when government concern with raw materials and waste
could have coalesced with public concern with environmental issues
was consequently lost.
6. GENERAL CONCLUSIONS
6.1 The waste problem emerged in Britain
during the twentieth century alongside important social and economic
changes, especially in the emergence of widespread affluence and
the supermarket retailing system.
6.2 Two efforts to put recycling at the centre
of waste management policy both ultimately ended in failure.
6.3 The causes of this failure were complex,
but some important factors can be seen in the failure to intervene
adequately to stabilise the prices for waste materials, government
encouragement of affluence, and a failure to challenge industries
that encouraged waste, such as the packaging and retail sectors.
6.4 The unwillingness to challenge those
with interests that contributed towards waste generation undermined
the "War on Waste" in the 1970s, by destroying the confidence
of voluntary and environmental groups in government policy.
6.5 WSE 2007 contains elements that
suggest some of the weaknesses of previous policy can be overcome:
there is a mechanism for penalising landfill in the shape of the
Landfill Tax and greater clarity on the role of producers in minimizing
and recycling waste.
6.7 However, the ultimate test of WSE 2007
will be whether it can sustain and extend existing achievements
in recycling and waste minimization, and this may depend ultimately
on government being able to show an equality of sacrifice between
householders and consumers (who have borne the brunt of efforts
to increase municipal recycling) and industry and retailers.
6.8 Recent press interest in packaging and
consumer campaigns against packaging, set alongside the debate
over weekly versus bi-weekly rubbish collections may be the first
signs of public discontent that the sacrifice of effort in terms
of waste reduction and recycling is unfairly balanced against
householders and consumers.
Dr Tim Cooper
History & Policy