Op-Ed: Reflecting on recycling — A journey of the past and to the future Special

Posted Apr 30, 2012 by Leigh Goessl
For several years now, recycling has been promoted as an environmentally friendly way to properly care for the Earth. Over time various trends have evolved to try and 'do right' by the environment through increased ecological awareness.
This is a leap forward from the littering that took place in the not so distant past when tossing trash out a car window was commonplace and people sometimes created mini-landfills on their property.
While 'litterbugs' have long fallen out of grace as society gravitated towards a focus on a cleaner Earth (as some may remember this classic public service announcement) and an emphasis on reduce, recycling and reuse, what's often forgotten is not everyone was harming the environment. Before society moved to using 'disposable' items and/or manufacturing cheaply made items which have increased the volume going to landfills and also raised the need for recycling, people in earlier decades (and centuries) often reused items on their own accord. Although in later years, this perhaps came with a boost from very early campaigns.
Here in the U.S. it is not uncommon to find older homes stuffed with horse hair or lamb's wool, used for insulation, although far less likely to be used in the modern day. While I can't speak for anywhere else, I'm sure way of thinking is not uncommon. There are countless ways people historically have reused household goods and surplus materials. I even know of one person, years ago in another state, who uncovered an old metal table top underground, which turned out was used as a cover for a septic tank.
One Northern Virginia resident recently found evidence of re-purposing from the mid-20th century.
While clearing out an old shed, a homeowner found an unusual piece of shelving on the property he'd purchased a few years back. He had never really taken a good look at the bookcase-like piece of furniture until he decided to take it apart. What he uncovered perked his curiosity, and he showed this writer what he found.
While it is impossible to determine precisely when the bookcase-like piece of furniture was constructed, all of the shelving's components appear to be from the 1950s. A portion of the wood comes from what appears to originate from a company founded in 1945, perhaps a shipping crate. The 'padding' on the component was created from newspapers published in 1955 and 1958 and covered with vinyl.
"I thought it was just an old shelf for yard equipment, like gardening shovels and insecticide," said the homeowner, who declined to be identified by name. "When I started ripping the vinyl covering off, there were 1950s newspapers and what must be similar-aged linoleum tiles, protecting the vintage 1950s packing box; it was amazing to reveal each newspaper page." And all were in remarkably good condition.
Two identifiable papers were The Independent and The Pittsburgh Press, both servicing the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area.
It is not known if the vinyl was reused from something else or its intent was for the purpose of the shelving, but it seemingly did a great job in keeping the newspaper and linoleum intact.
Stumbling upon the building materials for this shelving demonstrates 'recycling' is not only a new concept or fad, it also shares a bit of history. It also perhaps reveals some other belief values that have changed over time.
While society is now heavily focused on recycling and reuse, the motivations behind the movement are different. This shelving was made in an age where things weren't generally built, only to be discarded, items were constructed to last for longer periods of time. This shelving unit has weathered being in a shed and also in damp outdoor conditions and still outlasted any cheap pressboard shelving unit one might buy in a store today.
In the age of digitization these newspapers may or may not be available in other formats, still, the not-so-distant history contained between pages was still remarkable to see preserved, especially considering the elements they'd weathered outside.
Recycling will clearly play a role in the future, as it should. However, while reflecting on the topic, it's clear both historically, and even just a mere 50 years ago, this concept was already born and in practice. Over time it has been other habits that have changed, such as the push for convenience and disposable goods. The next generation will be coping with an increased amount of electronic waste.
Reflecting on this posed the question to this writer of whether or not today's 'green' efforts cannot simply be considered 'recycled ideas' to be used for business, political, or other intentions? Not that reusing ideas is a "bad" or even a wrong thing to do, but just demonstrates this concept is not a new way of thinking.
Additionally, it's often said that what's old is new. And people, it seems, are still living by this adage. As MSN noted some today are even recycling entire houses. Practices put into place today are not unlike practices of the distant, or not so distant past, as evidenced by this shelving unit, the reuse ideology is not new.
And sometimes, just maybe, one might stumble upon some history as well. You never know what might be hiding underneath floorboards, between walls, or even underground, at some older dwellings. It was interesting to this writer to pawn through these newspapers to see the events of the era and reflect upon societal, economic and political viewpoints of that time. From the stories to the advertisements, it illuminated how much things have changed, yet often remain the same.
1950s financial news
1950s financial news
**Disclosure: While the person in this story preferred not to be named, this writer does have a relationship connection and knows the individual personally.