Expert Opinion

Wartime Lessons for Recycle Week

Dr Henry Irving is a senior lecturer in public history and is writing a book on the social history of recycling in the Second World War.

This week is Recycle Week. The campaign aims to encourage all of us to recycle more of our household waste and has been marked by various councils, waste management companies and a growing number of retailers.

The Recycle Week campaign is supported by WRAP - a charity that receives funding from the government and aims to reduce waste. WRAP has been touring the country with a series of roadshows to promote recycling. These have included localised messages to highlight specific items that can be recycled in different parts of the UK. The aim is to encourage more of us to recycle with confidence.

Thanks to the impact of documentaries like Blue Planet II, which showed the devastating impact of plastic pollution, much of this year’s focus has been on plastic packaging.

In Stockport, the council has teamed up with Recycle for Greater Manchester to focus on recycling plastic bottles. Here in Leeds, the council is reminding people to recycle shampoo bottles, hand wash dispensers and other bathroom plastics. The pharmacy chain Boots has also got involved, asking staff to vote on whether to ban plastic-coated coffee cups from their head office.

The last year has seen an important shift in attitudes towards single-use plastics. More and more people are avoiding plastic bags, have stopped buying disposable plastic bottles, and are thinking twice before asking for a straw. WRAP hopes that Recycle Week will encourage even more people to change their behaviour.

WRAP has been running Recycle Weeks for the past fifteen years, but the history of recycling goes back far longer. My research explores the way that recycling operated during the Second World War.

Wartime recycling – which was called ‘Salvage’ – was an important part of life on the British home front. Very few people recycled their waste at the start of the war, but 94 per cent were doing so by February 1942. This rapid change was promoted by a belief that victory depended on recycled materials.

Although WRAP has celebrated 2018 as the biggest Recycle Week to date, it still has some way to go if it wants to match the enthusiasm that surrounded wartime recycling. In May 1942, for example, the British public identified recycling as the most memorable campaign on the home front. It easily beat better remembered examples like ‘Dig for Victory’ and instructions to join the Home Guard.

Wartime publicity to promote recycling was very similar to that used today. There was some national advertising, but most of the activity took place at a local level. Intensive publicity campaigns were used to promote recycling in particular areas. These often involved exhibitions, film screenings and public events involving local celebrities.

The most elaborate campaign took place in London in June 1943, when Trafalgar Square was transformed into an outdoor exhibition about shipping. Visitors were able to explore a replica ship and watch model boats sail the fountain basins on either side of Nelson’s column. The overarching message was that recycling at home saved lives at sea by cutting down on the amount of materials that needed to be imported.

As a lecturer in public history, I'm interested in the links between these wartime examples and the present day. I was recently involved in a project with Leeds Beckett BA Graphic Arts & Design students to produce a recycling campaign inspired by the Second World War. Their ‘War on Waste’ campaign combed historic techniques with contemporary messages in a series of colourful designs.

One possible lesson for Recycle Week concerns the success of local competitions. Wartime surveys found that more people were motivated to recycle by local campaigns than anything else. Unlike today, these often involved a competitive edge, as towns and regions were set targets to see which could collect the most waste. These targets kept wartime recycling in the news and increased the likelihood of people to get involved.

An understanding of this history could make the next Recycle Week even more successful.

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By Dr Henry Irving
27 Sep 2018
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