Recycling Timeline

Recycling is a key aspect of waste management but is a murky term as it has been found that less than 9% of recyclable plastics are actually recycled.

Let’s look at the timeline of recycling and how we got to a place where less than 9% of plastics are actually being recycled.


The Mobius Loop is introduced as the symbol for Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It was designed by Gary Anderson after a Chicago-based recycled-container company sponsored an art contest to raise environmental awareness.


The first Earth Day brings national attention to the problem of increasing waste and the importance of recycling. Today, Earth Day is supported by over 192 countries on April 22nd.


The first “Bottle Bill” is born: Oregon introduces a refundable deposit (a nickel) on beer and soda bottles as an incentive to recycle. Canadian Government established the Department of Environment, commonly referred to as Environment Canada.


The first recycling mill is built in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. Beverage container recycling regulations are introduced in Alberta, Canada.


University City, MO becomes one of the first in the country to offer Curbside Recycling to its residents


The Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is enacted to close open dumps, create standards for landfills, incinerators, and the disposal of hazardous waste.


Woodbury, New Jersey becomes the first city in the US to mandate recycling.


A second municipal blue box recycling program was started in Mississauga, Ontario. It is considered to be the largest recycling initiative in North America.


A garbage-laden barge called The Mobro cruised up and down the East Coast of the U.S. looking for a place to unload. This sparked a public discussion about waste management and served as a catalyst for the country’s growing recycling movement.


The number of curbside recycling programs in the US increases to about 1,050.


McDonald’s stops using Styrofoam containers. The 20th-anniversary theme for Earth Day is recycling.


Germany made history when it passed an ordinance shifting responsibility for the entire life cycle of packaging to producers.


The total number of curbside programs in the US grows to a total of 5,404, a growth of 4,354 programs in only 4 years!


Americans recycle a record 47.6 billion soft drink containers, an increase of 500 million over the previous year. Aluminum cans are recycled at a rate of 63% in the U.S. with the highest state-wide rate in California at 80%.

There are more than 10,000 recycling centers nationwide and at least 4,000 curbside collection programs.

U.S. collection grows from 1.2 billion cans in 1972 to more than 62 billion cans in 1995 through curbside recycling programs and more than 10,000 recycling centers.


The U.S. recycles at a rate of 25 percent; EPA sets a new goal of 35 percent. Meanwhile, in Germany, Elopak and SINTEF team up to sell the first infra-red sorting machine.


The EPA confirms a link between global warming and waste, showing that reducing our garbage and recycling cuts down greenhouse gas emissions.


Dell Computer begins offering a free recycling service for their products—no additional purchases required—sparking the movement of E-waste recycling.


Five states passed laws requiring that unwanted electronics be recycled. San Francisco becomes the first U.S. city to prohibit the distribution of plastic bags by grocery stores.


More than 585 million pounds of consumer electronics are recycled—an increase of 125 million pounds (more than 25 percent) over 2011.


A new class of industrial polymers discovered by researchers from IBM may revolutionize materials technology. The newly-discovered materials are exceptionally strong and light, and could find use in a wide variety of applications.

One of the most remarkable properties of one of these new materials is the ability to repair itself. When pieces are severed apart, and then placed in close proximity to each other, the segments begin to “self-heal,” reforming molecular bonds within a matter of seconds.

Scientists believe this may be the ultimate answer to drastically reducing waste. We believe that, although excited at the idea, we`ll believe it when we see it!


California enacts the first-ever state-wide ban on plastic bags in grocery and convenience stores.


A team of Japanese scientists discovered a species of bacteria that eats plastics commonly found in water bottles. The ideonella sakainesis secretes an enzyme that turns the PET to generate an intermediate chemical that is taken up by the cell, then broken down even further giving the bacteria carbon and energy to grow!


An engineer at Stanford and her team have come up with a new semiconductor that is not only as flexible as skin but is also biodegradable. This new tech could help drastically decrease e-waste in the future.

Considering that the almost 50 million tons of e-waste have been thrown out so far in 2017, a 20% increase from 2015, this is very much a welcome discovery!


China enforced several import bans in 2018 that resulted in significant shifts in the recycling industry. January 1st, 2018: China bans imports of 24 categories of recyclable materials. March 1st, 2018: China announces the quality standard that scrap material imports must meet from now on, a 0.5% contamination standard for plastics and fibers. As of Dec 31st, 2018 – 16 more “solid waste” scrap materials were banned from importing. The ban of 16 more will go into effect as of December 31st, 2019. With these import bans, the opportunity arises for western world countries to create better recycling practices at home. Hopefully we will see less contamination of recyclable materials as a result.

On April 30th, 2018, The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change of Ontario released their Food and Organic Waste Framework. This framework includes strategies to address and reduce food waste issues within the province. The province began consulting for their upcoming ban for food and organic waste, which prohibits this waste from ending up in disposal sites. This ban will be implemented by 2022, with, hopefully, many other places around the world following suit!

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest garbage island in the ocean gyres located between California and Hawaii. The issue of these ocean plastics led to the development of the Ocean Cleanup’s System 001 marine plastic collection prototype. This system uses cutting-edge technologies to remove immense amounts of plastics from our oceans. It is 2,000 feet long and uses the combination of 10- foot screens and the ocean’s natural current to catch the floating plastic.

After years of development, the Ocean Cleanup System 001 set out for sail on September 8th, 2018, from a port in San Francisco. Everything was smooth sailing until some issues arose in November regarding plastic escaping from the system. Shift 3 – a ship with materials was sent to help. Another minor setback occurred, and as of December 31st, 2018, it was announced that the Ocean Cleanup System would port for repair, after just three months on the Pacific Ocean. However, System 001 is announced to be back on the ocean in 2019!


A year later, China still refuses the imports of many types of plastic, meaning a global increase of plastic in landfills, and subsequently oceans and other waterways.

The United States “Save Our Seas 2.0” bill passed in early 2019. The legislation was developed with the intent to reduce plastic pollution in the environment, through initiatives such as clean-up efforts and finding new uses for existing plastic waste.

2019 also saw many plastic packaging bans in different states across the U.S., such as plastic bags, straws, and polystyrene foam containers (commonly used for takeout food). In addition, PFAS and BPAs are being added to the list of plastics to ban because of their impact. 

Canada announces a ban on single-use plastic by 2021. All businesses in Canada are obligated to comply with the new law, and many start right away by introducing bio-degradable or paper straws, eliminating plastic shopping bags, and encouraging reusable drinkware.