School of Cultural Studies and Humanities

Step Up Your Salvage: The theme of this year’s Recycle Week is ‘Step It Up’

The environmental charity WRAP is asking us all to do more because of the pressing need to conserve natural resources and reduce carbon emissions.

Someone throwing something into the recycling bin

Few would deny that tackling climate change is a challenge, but WRAP believes that we are “a nation of even tougher subjects”. Its promotional messages promise that “the climate crisis is something we can actively do something about … through small but powerful habits like recycling”.

This message would be very familiar to anyone who has lived through World War II. So, too, would WRAP’s belief that we need to act together to have the greatest impact. Although current recycling practices date to the 1990s, they are very similar to wartime efforts to save material to produce weapons.

I’ve spent much of my time at Leeds Beckett University researching this history. One of my main interests is the way that recycling – then called “Salvage” – was promoted as a way of helping secure victory. The wartime public was frequently told that recycled materials were needed for planes, guns, tanks, ships and ammunition – and often encouraged to “Step It Up”.

We can see this in a leaflet promoting recycling in summer 1940, which constantly repeated the mantra: “It depends on YOU!”. It would have been hard to avoid this message. The leaflet was sent to 12 million homes and amplified by newspaper advertisements, leaflets, posters, films, radio broadcasts and personal appeals.

Most people accepted these messages but there were still doubts about the value of small actions. Surveys found that people worried that their carefully sorted rubbish would be wasted and there were frequent complaints about bin collections. Some things never change. There were also persistent rumours about large quantities of unused recycling being dumped in the sea.

How realistic were these fears? Household recycling was not decisive to the war’s outcome, but it was far from unimportant. From a very patchy start, 94% of British households recycled at least some of their waste by 1942. The sum of these efforts resulted in around 9 million tonnes of material being recycled by local councils during the war.

These numbers are small by today’s standards. The latest figures show that households in England produce over 22 million tonnes of rubbish a year, of which 10 million tonnes are recycled. But the wartime figures at least show that changes are possible.

Here in Leeds, the wartime council was able to half the number of collections from refuse bins because people saw that small actions were better than none. The same is surely true today. As the 1940 leaflet said: “Don’t say ‘my little bit won’t count”.

Put Out Waste Paper Poster

© IWM Art.IWM PST 14692