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How the 1970s Created Recycling As We Know It

People recycled before then, but for different reasons

Recycling bins at the Whiteman Recycling Center in Montana. (Whiteman Air Force Base)
smithsonian.com

The environmental movement of the 1970s can be credited with directly shaping American recycling programs–although concern about the post-war disposable culture goes back almost to its beginning.

Before the advent of recycling programs, writes Sarah Goodyear for CityLab, “the vast majority of households sent 100 percent of their waste to landfills.” That’s not to say that previous generations didn’t recycle, but the curbside programs and bottle deposits (not to mention the circular arrow logo) associated with recycling today are all associated with the 1970s and 1980s.

However, consumers and manufacturers had been paying attention to the implications of single-use products and the lack of infrastructure for dealing with waste for years. The first landfill in the United States, Fresh Kills, opened on Staten Island in 1947, Goodyear writes. The landfill became “a potent national symbol of waste,” she writes.

In the midcentury, PSAs and other initiatives helped to raise awareness about what was politely termed “litter.” But over time, the calls to find a solution became louder. Consumers who had been adapted to the use-it-and-throw-it-away model of consumption became more concerned about where their waste was going. Whereas previous recycling efforts had centered around getting useful life out of products, writes Olivia B. Waxman for Time, "Americans began to recycle in order to deal with the massive amounts of waste produced during the second half of the 20th century."

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A 1970s-era poster encouraging recycling. (Library of Congress)

Corporations got involved: Keep America Beautiful, a coalition of "public and corporate interests," including a number of manufacturers of disposable products like cans, ran spots like the now-famous "Crying Indian." The Container Corporation of America ran a competition seeking “an emblem to put on their recycled cardboard products,” Goodyear writes. The winning design, by a college student named Gary Anderson, was the now-ubiquitous three arrow recycling symbol.

In 1971, Oregon was the first state to pass a beverage container deposit law. Then in 1980, Woodbury, New Jersey, became the first city with a curbside recycling program.

Today, Americans recycle or compost about 1/3 of the waste they generate, and only 10 states have beverage container deposit laws. Establishing recycling norms was a start, the EPA says, but there's more to be done.

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