Culture and the Arts

The War on waste

This project makes a connection between Dr Henry Irving’s research on recycling during World War Two and contemporary debates around waste.

The War on waste

THe Challenge

How can recycling practices during World War Two help us to understand contemporary concerns about waste management?

This project transformed findings from Dr Henry Irving’s research on recycling during the World War Two into a campaign to encourage recycling today. Shortages of raw materials meant that recycling – then ‘salvage’ – was an important part of life on the ‘home front’. Before the war, most domestic waste was burned, incinerated or sent to landfill. From virtually nothing, an almost universal recycling scheme was in operation by 1941, forcing important changes in behaviour.

The Approach 

The War on Waste project focused on the messages used to promote recycling to the wartime public through posters, films, broadcasts and exhibitions.

Support from the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) allowed Henry to hold a workshop with a group of students from the Leeds School of Arts. The students produced a series of posters inspired by those used during World War Two.

Their posters were produced using a cut-and-paste technique that would have been familiar to those working in the war and are displayed on a replica 1940s frame. But, unlike in the war, the paper was made from 100% recycled coffee cups.

The situation today is different from that experienced during the Second World War. We produce more waste than the wartime generation and do not face the same enemy. But the challenge we face is no less serious and there are important lessons to learn from the home front. History shows us that change is possible.

The Impact

After the workshop, the students’ work was combined with historical examples to create a pop-up exhibition about recycling and waste reduction. This was unveiled at an event with the organisation Zero Waste Leeds in 2018 and was displayed at Leeds Town Hall during summer 2019.

The exhibition forms part of a scheme of work with Zero Waste Leeds and Leeds City Council’s waste team.

Research outputs 

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