Without access to a fully functioning time machine, it’s impossible to locate the first person to ever recycle a material, but we can tell you about some of the ancient history of the resourceful practice.
It all starts around 12,000 years ago...
Back then, humans lived in tribes and had a nomadic lifestyle, moving around frequently in search of food and shelter. Due to the varying terrains and sources of food, it took a long time for homosapien man to find a good enough reason to stay in one place. They had a checklist, like water, low threat of death, warmth, vegetation and local mammal life, among other things. Then, all of a sudden, ancient humans discovered agriculture and the ability to farm, which made it possible to feed far more people, but at the sacrifice of settling. The tribes then grew into settlements, which grew into villages and civilizations, exploding in numbers, many of which can be traced back to the modern cities we know of today. Some experts claim that it was the discovery of alcohol that caused people to stay in one place, but that is up for debate!
With a great number of people, comes a great amount of waste, and whilst there were no plastic bottles, aluminium cans, glass jars and cardboard boxes, there was a lot of food waste and construction waste. These ancient people understood, for the most part, the fertile properties of food waste for compost, but they often just buried or burned waste building supplies to get them out of the way.
Proper ways to treat waste were not officially recognised until the Greek Empire in 400BC, when the world’s first rubbish tip was opened (municipal dump for those in the US). This was an open site for people to dispose of their waste. 200 years later, in Ancient Rome, the world’s first bin men appeared, as two men were employed to traverse the cobbled streets with a wagon, picking up litter. Nearly 1,600 years later, England introduced a law that made littering illegal, better late than never!
Paper recycling was reportedly invented in 1690 in America, by the Rittenhouse family of Philadelphia. Metal recycling was claimed to be invented by patriots in 1776 when a statue was melted to make bullets. July 4, 1776 was the start of the United States independence from Britain, the war the bullets were needed for was the revolutionary war. Incineration was invented by the British, in Nottingham, 1874. However, people had been burning rubbish for thousands of years; this was just the first time it had been done with purpose.
Of the above examples, there is one which is truly incorrect, and was put in there as a red herring to throw you off the answer to ‘Who Invented Recycling?’. Can you guess which one it is?
Answer: Metal Recycling.
Of course, the art of metal recycling has been going on for far longer than 250 years! Discoveries of Ancient Roman bronze artefacts point to native Northumbrians recycling the metal into things like weapons and coins to sell to the Roman soldiers. Whilst it’s not 100% certain that they invented this technique, some archaeologists claim this is one of, if not the earliest known act of metal recycling. It was confirmed by the discovery of a sprue, a piece of metal solidified in an ancient metal mould.
Apologies for no concrete answer, but we hope this information will prove useful to your knowledge of recycling history!