A discovery off Israel’s coast illustrates how the metal recycling industry dates back more than 1,600 years to Roman times.

Onboard a shipwreck found by divers in 2016 were metal statues of a sun god, moon goddess and whale along with other figurines and coins.

The significance of this find to archeologists was that bronze artifacts from this era are rarely found. 

That is because the Romans melted down their statues to make new items and if this garbage boat had not sunk in a storm, these would have been recycled as well.

Greeks and Romans 

The fact companies such as Richmond Steel Recycling have been reusing metal since the 1970s might have led some people to think the metal recycling industry is relatively new. 

But as a valuable resource that can be used over and over, the material has been put to new uses for centuries – this was particularly the case when coins bearing the face of a Roman emperor were melted to create new ones with the image of his successor.

In fact, the concept of reusing old items has been with us since the times of Ancient Greece – and often it happened when a raw material vital to a cause were in short supply.

During the American Revolutionary War in 1776, leaders such as George Washington and Paul Revere urged patriots to reuse items such as old chains and iron kettles, melting them down for armaments. 

Musket balls

Some of their acts were quite symbolic, for example, a gilded statue of King George III was torn down in Lower Manhattan. 

This then created 42,000 musket balls used to fight his British army.

But perhaps the first use of recycling as we know it today came in 1890, at a time when incineration was becoming more popular as a way of getting rid of rubbish. 

Founder of The Salvation Army William Booth was one of the first people to see it as a way of providing food, shelter and employment for people in need. 

He began setting up waste salvation centres around London which helped the poorer classes, who went around collecting junk from the city and recycling it to make money.

Wartime waste 

It is during wartime, though, the metal recycling industry can become a key part of efforts – and its use can cut deep into society.

The book Waste into Weapons examined the situation in the U.K. during World War Two – and with a shortage of raw materials for munitions factories, millions of people were enlisted to collect scrap.

Many historical buildings and artifacts were destroyed to help the war economy, with the book detailing the great loss that occurred because of the need for new materials.

Similarly, in the USA, campaigns such as “Save scrap for Victory” saw metal artifacts melted down to make airplanes and ships.

Here in Canada, salvage committees were set up in every town and city in 1941, which coordinated efforts and collection drives.

By 1944, this was so successful that shortage were no more and moves to collect scrap metals, as well as rubber, bones and fats were stopped.

Salvage division 

As well as helping to make everyone feel part of the war effort it also showed what could be achieved when efforts are made to find substitutes for materials. 

The salvage division formed within the Department of National War Services in January 1941 was perhaps ahead of its time – with every country in the world now having a recycling division of some form.

In times of struggle, making the most of limited resources is always vital – and many Americans also survived the Great Depression in the 1930s by selling bits of scrap. 

More and more aluminum recycling facilities and scrap yards then started to appear throughout the 20th century. 

Earth Day 

But maybe the metal recycling industry as we know it today really does have its origins in the period around when Richmond Steel Recycling started operating.

Following environmental protests in the 1960s, Earth Day was the brainchild of US Senator Gaylord Nelson, and it aimed to raise awareness of green issues and our effect on the planet.

The first was held in 1970 and 12 months later, in a poll of Americans, 25% said protecting the world was an important goal – a 2,500% rise from 1969.

Earth Day has kept growing ever since and is marked annually by hundreds of millions of people around the globe. 

While the growth of Richmond Steel Recycling hasn’t been quite as dramatic in the past 48 years, the company is still proud to play its part in conserving the planet’s resources.