American Recycling Born During World War II

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American recycling was born during World War II.

When Japan invaded Southeast Asia, it quickly cut off supplies of tin and rubber. These were the very materials that often ended up in the trash can or languishing unused in American homes or on farms.

That’s when the federal government began organizing “scrap drives.” Today we call it “recycling.”

U.S. households and businesses alike were urged to conserve and salvage metal, paper and rubber. And communities joined together in these efforts.

Gearing Up for War

In January of 1942, President Roosevelt established the War Production Board (WPB). The purpose of the WPB was to facilitate the conversion of civilian industries to war production.

The WPB’s powers were far-reaching. It was responsible for:

  • Assigning priorities and allocating the scarce resources of steel, aluminum and rubber.
  • Prohibiting any nonessential industrial production (such as nylons and refrigerators)
  • Controlling wages and prices
  • Mobilizing the masses through patriotic propaganda.

The WPB was the driving force behind the various scrap drives.

A Jump in Production

The result was phenomenal.

Military aircraft production jumped from 6,000 in 1940 to 85,000 in 1943. Factories that made silk ribbons now produced parachutes. Automobile factories built tanks. Typewriter companies converted to machine guns. And undergarment manufacturers sewed mosquito netting.

The WPB ensured that each factory received the materials required to produce the most war goods in the shortest amount of time.

Scrap Metal

American recyclingIn 1942 private citizens scoured their homes, farms, and businesses for metal.

Housewives donated pots and pans, farmers turned in farm equipment, and children even sacrificed their metal toys. Some folks went so far as to remove bumpers and fenders from their cars in order to help the war effort.

According to author and historian Sarah Sundin, “Communities melted down Civil War cannons and tore down wrought iron fences, sacrificing their history for their future.”

These drives were often great community events, with performers, speeches, and opportunities to throw your scrap metal at a bust of Hitler. Towns, counties and states competed to produce the most scrap.

national scrap metal drive in October 1942 resulted in an average of almost 82 pounds of scrap per American.

Katharine Phillips of Mobile, Alabama, was a sophomore in high school when the United States entered the war. In an interview with PBS, she described the scrap metal drives:

“All the old iron beds were pulled out of the garages and they were put in the metal drives. The Boy Scouts did a great deal of that. The city took up the old streetcar lines… and we added those to the scrap pile. But everyone took part in World War II down to the youngest child.”

In this publicity photo, actress Rita Hayworth announced that she was “harvesting a bumper crop for Uncle Sam.”

The Office of Civilian Defense called upon each American family to become a “fighting unit on the home front.” Everyone was asked to collect scrap metal for the production of armaments.

Government propaganda emphasized the need to make each home and business “an arsenal for victory by fighting waste every day from now until the war is over.”

The battle cry was “Salvage, salvage, salvage!” It was the birth of American recycling on a grand scale.

Rubber and Tin 

In the summer of 1942, the United States held a nationwide rubber drive. (America’s military vehicles required millions of tires. Rubber was also needed to produce tanks and planes.)

People brought in old or excess tires, raincoats, hot water bottles, boots, and floor mats. In exchange, they received a penny a pound. A total of 450,000 tons of scrap rubber was collected.

Most communities collected tin cans once a month. The motto was “wash and squash.”

People placed boxes of washed and crushed tin cans by the curb for collection. Some towns had central collection sites. Youth groups, especially the Boy Scouts, were highly involved in all of these drives.

“Communities melted down Civil War cannons and tore down wrought iron fences, sacrificing their history for their future.” — Sarah Sundin, Author and Historian

Copper was also in short supply during this time. The military needed millions of miles of copper wire to communicate on the battlefields.

So during 1943, the U.S. Mint began making pennies out of steel in order to satisfy the military’s demands. (The Mint also conserved nickel, another important metal, by removing it from five-cent pieces.)

And the Rest Is History

According to a December 1943 Time magazine article, Joseph Stalin is quoted as saying, “Without American production, the Allies could  never have won the war.”

A significant part of that production can be credited to the households and businesses that contributed to the American recycling movement during World War II, as evidenced by the following video clip:


Oklahoma Historical Society

Time Magazine

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