School of Humanities and Social Sciences

Historical Lessons for Recycling Policy - Policy Week 2024

Dr Henry Irving, Senior Lecturer in Public History, is working with environmental NGO WRAP to apply his research into recycling schemes in the Second World War to identify how we can improve our policies today. In this post, as part of our LBU Policy Week blog series, he shares insight into how we can look to the past for lessons about shaping our future and successfully increasing our recycling rates in England.

Salvage on the British Home Front - copyright IWM D 7560

To talk about policy can sometimes sound quite abstract. Policymakers and academics alike talk about decisions and outcomes in ways that necessarily focus on the big picture. But policy decisions shape all parts of our lives.

Take the things we buy and the things we throw away. The price of different products and what they come packaged in are partly determined by policy. So are our options when we need to dispose of them. Some of these policies are determined nationally, others locally. This is the reason why bin collections in Leeds are different from those in Manchester or Sheffield or Birmingham. Waste policy is also devolved, so there are different emphases in England, Scotland and Wales.

There is more to this than convenience. Around 5 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come directly from waste disposal, and we know that this can be brought down through recycling and reuse. Doing so would also cut emissions in other sectors because it takes less energy to reprocess materials than it does to extract and process new ones.

The government recognises that waste is one of the most tangible parts of the environmental crisis facing our planet. It is also committed to reform. The plan is to simplify recycling collections in England so that all councils collect the same materials. This proposal was first made in 2018 – but it made headlines last year when Rishi Sunak promised it would not need seven bins to work.

General Scrap Salvage in Wartime Britain - copyright IWM D 14076

General scrap: Salvage in wartime Britain, 1943 © IWM D 14076

A more consistent recycling system should cut confusion by allowing clearer labelling on packaging. The hope is that this will lead to more items being put into the right bin. This is not as good for the environment as buying less, but it would still be a significant win. The recycling rate in England has been stuck around 45% for almost a decade and other places – including Scotland and Wales – do better.

We can look to the past for lessons about how these changes should be introduced because a remarkably similar recycling scheme was put in place during the Second World War. Councils were then required to collect paper, metal, textiles, household bones and kitchen waste to cut imports and save shipping space. My research on this subject shows that it had mixed success.

I am currently working with the environmental charity WRAP to use my knowledge of past recycling schemes to identify opportunities and challenges for today. It is a collaboration supported by the British Academy, which funds Innovation Fellowships that mobilise arts and humanities research.

Kitchen waste into cattle feed Salvage on the British Home Front - copyright IWM D 7580

Kitchen waste into cattle feed: Salvage on the British Home Front, 1942 © IWM D 7580

Since starting the project, I have travelled to archives around the country to understand just how recycling was experienced eighty years ago. I have found that people grumbled but quickly got used to separating their recycling. They did so as they realised it was wasteful to destroy materials that could be given second, third or fourth lives. These stories are themselves being given another life by WRAP as part of their current campaigns.

The history of wartime recycling leads to five policy-focused conclusions:

  1. Waste can be reframed as a resource.
  2. People can adapt to new routines.
  3. What happens at a local level is crucial.
  4. Successful publicity balances urgency and clarity.
  5. There needs to be stable financial incentives.

Ultimately, my project suggests the government could be bolder. This is not a call for everyone to immediately be given seven bins, even if some places coped with eight in 1945! But councils should be able to make that choice if they think it is the best way of collecting waste in their area.

We can also think historically about the present. When compared to the 1940s, we have much more time to get the implementation of a more consistent recycling scheme right by supporting councils to invest in systems designed for the long term. If that happens, there should be fewer grumbles.

Top image: Salvage on the British Home Front, 1942 - copyright IWM D 7560.

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