Learning from Wartime Recycling

Henry Irving, Leeds Beckett University


Can social history help to overcome modern environmental challenges?

This question was the starting point for the War on Waste project. It has used the history of recycling during the Second World War as inspiration for a campaign to reduce the amount of rubbish sent for landfill and incineration.

Waste is a pressing concern. Despite long-term commitments to encourage a circular economy, recycling rates in England have stalled. In my home city of Leeds, official figures suggest that rates have actually fallen in recent years. The average household in the city produces almost half a tonne of waste a year. Just under 40% of this is currently recycled, according to DEFRA, meaning that the city is unlikely to meet a European target to recycle half of all household waste by 2020.

Similar issues were played out during the Second World War. The wartime public was encouraged to see recycling – then called ‘salvage’ – as a contribution towards victory. Official publicity campaigns attempted to explain how recycled materials were used to save shipping and to make planes, guns, tanks, and ammunition. My research suggests that these messages had at least some impact on the rapid growth of recycling during the first years of the war.

(c) TNA INF 3/220

Historians are rightly wary of attempts to draw clear lessons from the past. As a discipline, we are trained to view our work as a process of critical analysis. History, in this sense, is an interpretation of the past based upon our reading of fragmentary information. As Pam Cox has suggested, we deal in ‘partial rather than absolute truths’ .

We are also taught to view the past in its own right. This is particularly important when comparisons are made between different moments in time. All the available evidence suggests that salvage was an important part of life during the Second World War. But it also suggests that this process was understood very differently from contemporary recycling. As the environmental historian Peter Thorsheim has argued, the aim was not to preserve resources, but instead to divert them into destructive means.

Despite this, it would be a mistake to overlook history’s capacity to capture attention. Popular and public forms of history show us that the past can enthuse specialists and non-specialists alike. The War on Waste project sought to do this by exploiting the colourful nature of wartime publicity.

(c) saul studio, 2018

The project was a collaboration between Leeds Beckett University’s Centre for Culture and the Arts, a group of social enterprises working under the banner ‘Zero Waste Leeds’, saul studio and a group of BA Graphic Arts & Design students. The students responded to our findings by producing a series of posters inspired by those used during the Second World War. In keeping with the theme, these posters were produced using cut and paste techniques that would have been familiar to those working during the 1940s and are displayed on a wooden frame based on a Second World War design.

Our ambition is to share the display with as many people as possible. This is being helped by Leeds City Council, who have agreed to host the display at Leeds Town Hall. We hope that this experience will show that history can be used to stimulate thoughts and actions in the present, even if it doesn’t always provide easy answers.

Do get in touch if you’d like to help us spread this message.


About the author: As well as being the new SHS Communications Officer, Dr Henry Irving is a senior lecturer in public history at Leeds Beckett University and a member of the Institute of English Studies project, ‘A communication history of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’. This post, written before he was invited to become editor of the Community Exchange, is based on his research on the social history of recycling during the Second World War.

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