Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

We get a lot of questions about recycling, asking what to do with aluminum cans, glass, paper, or even plastic. All this has me wondering: when did we start recycling? How did it get so popular? 

We had Harrison Katz and Janek Schaller from our Possibly team look into this question. 

Harrison Katz: Hi, Megan!

Janek Schaller: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, when did we start recycling?

Harrison Katz: Well, the history of recycling goes all the way back to the 9th century in Japan. But in the United States, recycling didn’t become mainstream until the 1930s, when the Great Depression made conserving resources very important. 

Janek Schaller: At that time, most of the recycling was steel, rubber, nylon, and paper. That continued through World War II.

Megan Hall: And what about plastic?

Harrison Katz: Plastic recycling didn’t start until 1972, when they built the first plastic recycling mill in the world in Pennsylvania.

Megan Hall: Why did it take so long to start recycling plastic? Did we just not know how? 

Janek Schaller: Actually, it’s a lot more sinister than that. When plastics were first invented in 1907, they were designed to be durable and re-usable.

Harrison Katz: Most commercial plastics were used in place of more expensive materials to make items like toys more affordable. Because of that, we didn’t really need plastic recycling.4

Janek Schaller: But by the 1960s, that culture was starting to change. Industry leaders shifted away from long-lasting plastic to single-use packaging..

Megan Hall: Why?

Harrison Katz: Think of it this way- would you rather sell a package once that lasts? Or sell a new one every time someone needs it? 

Megan Hall: Okay, to make more money…

Janek Schaller: But it took a while for people to adjust to these new plastics. The industry actually had to run ads to encourage people to throw plastic away instead of saving it.

Megan Hall: Wait, so all of these problems we have today with plastic were an intentional choice by the industry?

Harrison Katz: Unfortunately, yes. But that’s not all. When conservation became a hot topic, the plastic industry had to change its tune. 

Janek Schaller: They advertised recycling as a solution, since it meant they wouldn’t have to change their product.

Harrison Katz: Have you ever seen that famous “keep America beautiful” commercial from the 70s? That was them. It’s meant to make the consumer, us, feel guilty about all of this plastic waste, as if it’s our fault.

Megan Hall: Wow! I thought that was a public service announcement!

Harrison Katz: Nope. It came directly from the companies that made plastic.

Janek Schaller: Plastic recycling has slowly been picking up steam, but it will never reach the level of other recycling. 

Megan Hall: Why not?

Harrison Katz: Aluminum and glass can be recycled almost indefinitely. Paper can be recycled multiple times. But plastic can only be recycled once, usually only into fleece or synthetic wood.

Janek Schaller: Not to mention, a lot of plastic can’t be recycled at all.

Megan Hall: Well, what can we do about this?

Harrison Katz: The best course of action would be encouraging laws to help reduce plastic waste. Rhode Island’s 2022 law banning single-use plastic bags is a great example

Janek Schaller: Or we could try what they do in Europe- require manufacturers to be responsible for the disposal of packaging they sell.

Harrison Katz: Which motivates them to use less!

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Harrison and Janek! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.

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