Retro: Recycling’s WWII roots

American Second World War recycling posters
American Second World War recycling posters

Currently there are ten Household Waste Recycling sites in Northamptonshire and we are encouraged to recycle our waste materials so they can be used again in another form.

However, recycling waste products is not a new idea.

The largest recycling campaign ever recorded in history was implemented during the Second World War.

The poster campaign by the wartime Government encouraged everyone to contribute to the war effort by recycling and this, for many, was a big boost to their morale.

What was collected and why?

Tin and metal items were collected to be reused in the manufacture of aircraft and tanks, weapons etc.

Unfortunately, much of what was collected could not be used and was dumped.

However, this didn’t become known until after the war had ended.

Boiled bones were collected to be used to make glue, particularly for aircraft frames.

Kitchen waste (cooked and uncooked food) was collected by farmers to feed to pigs, goats and chickens.

Used tyres were collected so the rubber could be re-used to make new ones.

In addition newspapers during the Second World War were printed on poor quality paper and the general public was asked to buy their daily paper from the same newsagent each time so wastage could be reduced.

Why recycle?

Germany was attempting to isolate Britain with its U-Boats, and to force Britain to surrender by starving her out.

Recycling meant Britain would be more self-reliant.

When the Japanese invaded Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies in 1942, they gained control over the natural rubber production there, which at that time provided 95 per cent of the world’s rubber.

There were no synthetic alternatives readily available so existing rubber had to be re-used.

Rubber Sorting Units were set up around the country and one was established at the Midland Road Station Yard, in Thrapston.

It was here that old and damaged wheels from cycles, cars and aircraft were delivered by train so the rubber and the metal bracing could be extracted for recycling.

The working area was mostly outside, whatever the weather.

There were two shifts a day and the very heavy work was carried out by both men and women.

The aircraft wheels could, for example, be up to 6ft in diameter.

The rubber and metal bracing in the worn and damaged tyres would be separated using very basic tools and there were frequent injuries.

These teams of rubber sorters made a considerable contribution towards the continuing manufacture of aircraft and vehicles during the war.

Unlike the metal that was collected, the rubber they salvaged was used and the demand often outstripped supply.

For more Thrapston history visit Thrapston District Historical Society’s website.