Challenging the 'refuse revolution': war, waste and the rediscovery of recycling, 1900-50

Tim Cooper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


This article argues that the experiences of war played an important role in reshaping the social practices of waste disposal between 1900 and 1950. Before 1914 recycling was declining in the face of the challenge presented by the emerging culture of hygiene and the introduction of incinerator technology. This decline was partially reversed between 1914 and 1945 by the wartime imperative to utilize resources efficiently. The need to preserve both valuable shipping space and foreign currency reserves compelled wartime governments to seek stricter recycling measures from local authorities. One consequence of this was that waste management professionals, whose duties had previously been confined to the maintenance of the public health, suddenly reconstituted themselves as experts in resource management. In turn they transformed their attitude to waste, developing new salvage technologies that promised to increase levels of reuse and recycling. During this period there emerged a brief challenge to the nascent throwaway society. However, wartime salvage efforts did not prosper with the removal of the campaign for national survival. Even the economic problems of the late nineteen-forties proved insufficient to maintain the level of recycling without the drive provided by patriotism and Britain quickly slipped back into a throwaway culture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)710-731
Number of pages22
JournalHistorical Research
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2008




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