Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America

Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America

Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America

Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America


Over the past two decades, concern about the environment has brought with it a tremendous increase in recycling in the United States and around the world. For many, it has become not only a civic, but also a moral obligation. Long before our growing levels of waste became an environmental concern, however, recycling was a part of everyday life for many Americans, and for a variety of reasons. From rural peddlers who traded kitchen goods for scrap metal to urban children who gathered rags in exchange for coal, individuals have been finding ways to reuse discarded materials for hundreds of years.

In Cash for Your Trash, Carl A. Zimring provides a fascinating history of scrap recycling, from colonial times to the present. Moving beyond the environmental developments that have shaped modern recycling enterprises, Zimring offers a unique cultural and economic portrait of the private businesses that made large-scale recycling possible. Because it was particularly common for immigrants to own or operate a scrap business in the nineteenth century, the history of the industry reveals much about ethnic relationships and inequalities in American cities. Readers are introduced to the scrapworkers, brokers, and entrepreneurs who, like the materials they handled, were often marginalized.

Integrating findings from archival, industrial, and demographic records, Cash for Your Trash demonstrates that over the years recycling has served purposes far beyond environmental protection. Its history and evolution reveals notions of Americanism, the immigrant experience, and the development of small business in this country.


Paul Revere recycled. Readers may be surprised that one of the heroes of the War of Independence participated in an activity we associate with the late twentieth century. Revere did not call what he did [recycling]—that term first was used regularly by the petroleum industry in the 1920s—but he saved old metal objects for reuse, just as we save cans and bottles today.

Revere did not recycle because he was interested in saving the environment; I do not know if he had any particular views on his surroundings, other than that they should not be under the authority of King George. Revere recycled because using old metals provided valuable economic returns. He made his living as a metalsmith, crafting primarily goods of silver but also copper, iron, and gold. From scrap metal he forged horseshoes sound enough for him to ride to Lexington. Reuse meant he did not have to purchase new supplies of metal when he wanted to fashion new horseshoes, or church steeples, or whatever his customers asked him to make. After the war, these customers included the new government, who purchased some of Revere's copper for pennies minted during the early 1790s. Subsequently, Revere supplied metals for naval vessels and the dome of the new statehouse for the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Revere collected old metals from broken farm implements, cookware, and other sources near his yard in Boston, using them in the production of new goods. His . . .

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