Anyone who grew up with parents or grandparents who lived through the Great Depression (my own grandmothers were incapable of throwing away plastic margarine tubs and even used tea bags more than once) will understand that while recycling for carbon reduction may be a modern topic, recycling for economic thrift is not only not new: it’s likely as old as the human race. It wasn’t until the 1970s that large-scale recycling of glass and aluminum began. The first national recycling plant was built by a company called Waste Techniques in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, in 1972. The 1980s saw the debut of household recycling in the ubiquitous blue bins. Woodbury, New Jersey was the first city in the country to begin a household recycling program that involved weekly curbside collection. Our “throw it away and buy another” mindset is a product of the late twentieth century, when inexpensive imported goods made it economically feasible to be wasteful and large-scale landfills were built to accommodate a nation’s garbage and junked household goods. Prior to supermarkets, dime stores and large consumer chains such as Wal-Mart selling inexpensive imported goods, recycling was not a lifestyle choice; it was one of primary means by which household goods were replaced. Wartime, of course, marked the high points of early recycling initiatives. When raw materials for goods became scarce, citizens became more determined to scavenge, recycle and reuse what they could. Sometimes wartime recycling led to great societal changes. When World War I began in 1914, women’s fashions had already begun to change. The ever-present corset of the nineteenth century began to give way to more modern fashion sensibilities, including the newly invented brassiere and the desire for a more natural body shape under clothing. (Thanks to a French clothing designer named Paul Poiret, a guy who was nearly run out of town by the decency police for suggesting that women’s bodies should be left alone to look more like women’s bodies.) But when a clever individual whose name is lost to history realized how much valuable steel was contained in the boning structure of corsets, European women and later North American women threw off their corsets en masse in the name of patriotism (not to mention the rare opportunity to breathe in public). Millions of corsets containing tens of thousands of pounds of steel were reportedly salvaged and contributed to the construction of two new battleships. In a scene from the British World War IIera film “Hope and Glory,” residents of a neighborhood in London gather to watch the descent of a parachuting German Luftwaffe pilot forced to ditch his plane after it was damaged by British anti-aircraft fire. While the men cautiously draw back from the German after he lands, one woman in the crowd realizes the significance of the parachute. “It’s silk!” she screams to the assembled crowd. The women, realizing that grabbing a piece of the parachute may mean the opportunity for a new undergarment instead of the worn and mended ones they’ve been wearing since the beginning of the war, rush the startled German, desperate not to capture him but his parachute. But recycling, of course, is an ancient practice, and there’s plenty of easy visual evidence for that. The Great Pyramids of Giza stand today in their present form of rough yellow limestone blocks. But originally, the pyramids’ surfaces were smooth: after the pyramids’ completion, workers installed layers of smooth white limestone over the monuments to give them a finished look. During subsequent millennia, local residents stripped away the white limestone to use in building their own homes, and today only the most inaccessible of the white limestone—that at the very top—remains on the pyramids. Early writing materials were also a good example of recycle and reuse. Paper, which was expensive and hard to obtain, was rare, and writing was usually done either on wooden tablets covered with a layer of wax (which could be smoothed for later reuse), on papyrus, which was made from the fibers of a water plant that grew along the banks of the Nile River, or later on vellum, a kind of tough paper made from calf or other animal skin. Vellum, which was used for some of the world’s most famous government documents including the Declaration of Independence and Britain’s Magna Carta, was strong enough to withstand the scraping off of old ink and surface polishing with pumice stone or another abrasive to prepare it for reuse. Animal skin documents from ancient and medieval times often show evidence of stitching where larger writing surfaces were created by sewing together smaller scraps of material. Wartime recycling, however, sometimes leads to cultural atrocities. During the Greek revolution to win back territory from the Turks in 1821, Turkish soldiers ran out of lead for ammunition. Frugally, they began dismantling columns from Greek temple ruins, seeking the inner brace of lead installed there by the ancient builders for the purpose of holding the pieces of the column together. Horrified by the destruction of their ancient cultural relics, the Greeks offered to provide their enemy with sufficient quantities of lead to make ammunition—as long as the Turks promised they would leave the temples alone. It was those crafty, clever Romans who led the charge on ancient recycling, however. When the Roman legions conquered new lands, they would collect the metal goods of those they conquered: jewelry, coins, weapons and household goods such as plates, goblets and serving vessels, and melt it all down, creating jewelry for themselves and statues of their gods for public and temple display. No doubt the symbolism of taking the goods of the conquered and turning them into trinkets praising the gods of the victors was not lost on the Romans. The Romans were clever recyclers of other materials, as well. Roman-era glassware has been examined by modern spectroscopic technologies and found to contain a mix of glass reused from other eras and for other purposes. Some studies have proved that over half the Roman glassware examined contained recycled glass (which means the Romans had a better track record in recycling glass than we do today). There is even evidence that the Romans had a technique for removing dyeing agents from colored glass to render it clear again before reuse (clear glass was trickier to make, and therefore a more highly prized status symbol, than colored glass). Archaeological evidence has also been discovered that recycling Roman coins was a commonplace practice for early native Britons. After the Romans withdrew from Britain, coins they had minted would no longer have had value as legal tender, but the metals they were made from—gold, silver, bronze and copper—still had value, and trinkets such as jewelry, decorative art and grave goods have been found from the post-Roman era that were clearly made from recycled Roman coins. It’s humbling to remember that once upon a long time, the human race discarded virtually nothing, unlike today. While it’s easy to blame high consumption and the rise of ubiquitous modern materials such as plastic and all its derivatives on our waste-intensive lifestyles today, it’s also important to remember that our virtuous ancestors usually composted themselves pretty quickly, too —average life expectancy in ancient through medieval times was about 30—and that our cluttered modern life is one of the prices we pay for living long enough to meet our grandchildren.