Time in a Recyclable Bottle

 The year was 1924. 

Calvin Coolidge was president, the summer Olympics took place in Paris, George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ topped the billboard charts, and the very first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade was celebrated on the streets of New York.  

Though much further down the mainstream view, 1924 also saw the dawn of something else quite substantial i.e., recycling efforts beginning to take hold in the U.S.    

In the 100 years that have elapsed, recycling has advanced by leaps and bounds from those early days as a niche activity to the global environmental movement it’s become. Back then, it was much more about saving money vs. saving the planet as people recycled scrap metal, paper, and glass mainly because resources were scarce, especially during lean times.

What’s more, there weren’t formal recycling programs but rather, it was mostly individuals and small businesses doing their part. At that time, of the three most collected items—scrap metal, paper, and glass—scrap metal far outpaced all other categories with about 70% getting recycled in the U.S.

Paper recycling ran a distant second with only about 20% of paper products being reused, followed by glass which was essentially nonexistent with just 5% of glass containers being recycled. 

Fast fwd’ing to 2024, recycling is completely transformed. Environmental awareness, technological advancements, and government initiatives have all contributed toward making recycling a normal part of life. Curbside pickup and recycling centers now standard in many places have also played a significant role.

Since those 1924 statistics, the U.S. isn’t the only country to make strides with Germany now recycling over 90% of their metal. Japan and South Korea have also picked up the pace with paper recycling rates over 70%, and thanks to new techniques, glass recycling is nearing 50% in many areas.

Even further proof of how far we’ve come, recycling now includes not only traditional materials, but electronics, plastics, and, ah yes, food waste. Food waste of course being a primary area of focus for us at Food Loops.

So just how much food waste are we talking about? According to Recycle Track Systems (RTS) the world wastes about 2.5 billion tons of food annually, of which the U.S. discards more food than any other country to the tune of nearly 60 million tons—or roughly 120 billion pounds every year.

That’s estimated to be almost 40 percent of the entire U.S. food supply equating to 325 pounds of waste per person. That’s like every person in America throwing 975 average sized apples right into the garbage—or rather straight into landfills—as that’s where most discarded food ends up. In fact, food is the single largest component taking up space in U.S. landfills, making up a whopping 22 percent of all municipal solid waste.

Great strides have clearly been made over the course of the past hundred years—full stop. The mere fact recycling to some degree is almost universally recognized is proof of that.  

Despite those advancements however (you just knew there was a however coming) there’s much work yet to be done creating sustainable, recycling systems. By applying technology, encouraging global cooperation, and continuing to raise awareness through promoting individual responsibility, we can—and are—building a future where recycling is becoming a reflexive habit where it’s much more something that’s done vs. something viewed as an option.

Looking back, the culture and events of 1924 surely had their own issues to contend with apart from sustainability, but organizations like Food Loops see the growing demand for more sustainable practices as proof of concept in what we’re striving to achieve—a/k/a nothing wasted—both now and into the next 100 years.