It is impossible to know for sure because we’ve been recycling for longer than you might think. True, the plastic bins in which many of us sort our garbage are a fairly recent development, and most home recycling programs (curbside pick-up etc.) have only been around since 1990. But did you know that steel has been consistently recycled since the 1850s? It costs a lot less to melt down old scrap iron and re-use it in new steel, because the metal doesn’t degrade at all during the process and you don’t have to go out and mine new iron ore. Recycling was also big in World War II, where children were encouraged to go around their communities collecting cans, bottle caps and other bits of junk which were melted down for their aluminum and recycled into airplanes and other war materials. In the famous Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life, for example (made in 1946), George Bailey is briefly mentioned as the captain of a “rubber drive” in Bedford Falls–similar to the aluminum program, the federal government wanted to recycle rubber from old tires for use in new war machines. Thus it’s impossible to tell for sure how much waste we have collectively saved by recycling, except to say that it’s a lot.
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