When scrapping became recycling

As a boy, I learned how important salvaging scrap metal and other needed materials in World War II was for the war effort.

My mother, then a young wife with a baby (my older brother by four years), was a secretary while her husband (my father) was fighting in Europe. She participated in local and national “Scrap for Victory” and “Get in the Scrap” campaigns, calling for the patriotic duty of every American to conserve, reuse and recycle as much as possible metal and other commodities during WWII.

Mom saved tin cans, newspapers and magazines, even kitchen fat and cooking grease. She donated most of her kitchen ware to scrap metal drives. The campaigns asked Americans to donate rags, nylons and rubber for reuse in the war.

Scouts, students at schools and kids gathered about everything on the list of wartime wants and even sacrificed their metal toys in “Schools at War” campaigns.

Uncle Alex, a tobacco farmer, often quipped at family reunions that old steam engines, tractors, and farm equipment predating 1940 were as rare as hen’s teeth after the war.

Times have changed. Like many Baby Boomers, the generation that came of age amid the first Earth Day in 1970, I haven’t scrapped much over the years as an adult but have recycled whatever possible whenever possible. Recycling properly, however, can be confusing about what can and can’t be tossed in the recycling bin or what should be trashed.

According to Consumer Brands’ 2019 “Reduce, Reuse, Confuse” recycling report, only 47% of Baby Boomers and 46% of the Silent Generation were very clear on local recycling rules.

The report indicated 32% of Baby Boomers and 25% of the Silent Generation were most likely to be aspirational recyclers, hoping what they toss into a recycling bin is actually recyclable. It has resulted in increased recycling contamination rates – from 7% of all recycling ten years ago to 24% now, according to the report.

According to the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, when materials that are not recyclable in our curbside recycling system are placed into the recycle bin, like Styrofoam, Kleenex, plastic bags and much more, the contaminates can get stuck in equipment at the recycling
facility (plastic bags), cause safety issues (glass) or can lower the value of the recyclable materials.

The department estimates between 23-28% of local curbside recycling collections in Johnson County are made up of contamination or materials that aren’t recyclable. The best we can do is continue to educate ourselves on local recycling rules and be more knowledgeable recyclers. The department’s Recycling 101 webpage offers guidance at jocogov.org/recycling101.

Locally and nationally, aspirational recycling is proof that our intentions are good. Just a decade ago, 38% of Americans considered themselves extremely or very concerned about the environment. Today, the figure has jumped to an average of 68% for Baby Boomers and 66% for the Silent Generation, according to the “Reduce, Reuse, Confuse” report.

There is simply no good reason not to recycle. Each of us should be doing our part in properly recycling the right way in celebration of another Earth Day on April 22 and beyond.

Scrapping was important in war. Recycling matters now.