Recycling didn’t start with Earth Day in 1970 — a date that many consider to be the birth date of the modern environmental movement. Reuse of materials has been a practice for many years, especially during shortages of raw materials.
During World War II, the effort to build massive ships also created mountains of industrial trash. And while all resources were prioritized for winning the war against fascism, everyone was encouraged to step up to produce as efficiently as possible. At the Kaiser shipyards, that also meant recycling.
In 1944, the 4 Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California, produced more than 11,000 gross tons of scrap steel and 78,000 pounds of non-ferrous metals, as well as 11,400 paint pails, 2,056 carbide drums, and large quantities of rubber scrap, wire rope reels, scrap burlap, rope, batteries, and battery plates.
Much of the material collected was recycled on site. “The idea is to waste nothing,” a writer explained in the Kaiser Richmond shipyard newspaper, Fore ‘n’ Aft. “Strongbacks (braces), clips, dogs, wedges, bolts, nuts, and the like are dropped down separate chutes into bins to be reclaimed in the shop.” The article pointed out that at the shipyards’ “Yard Three,” during the previous month, a crew of 137 salvage workers had reclaimed 14,800 feet of pipe, sold 318 tons of scrap pipe-ends, made 254,616 strongbacks and clips, and reclaimed over 176,000 bolts and nuts.
Fast forward to the present and Kaiser Permanente is continuing to stake out ambitious goals for recycling. In fact, the organization aims to recycle, reuse, or compost 100% of its non-hazardous waste by 2025.
Then, as now, recycling on a massive scale required hard work. At the wartime shipyards, scrap ferrous metals were collected for sending to steel mills for re-melting, but only about 10% were ready to go into the furnaces. The rest had to stop off at preparers for sorting and cleaning. And recycling didn’t stop at the water’s edge. The job of salvage even carried on to the high seas where the ships brought back scrap from the world's battlefields. Aboard ship, cooking fats and tin cans were saved from the galley; flue dust from the boilers and fire boxes yielded strategic vanadium and lamp black; and sailors were encouraged to save every possible rope-end.
“Scramble and scrape to save scrap to scramble the enemy,” the Fore ‘n’ Aft article ends. “Don't forget your part as a war worker handling vital materials is a big one. Make everything count so you can make more things that count. Try to imagine a price tag on every piece of scrap.”
Creating healthy communities by preserving natural resources — good advice then and now.