Real Steel…When America Made Recycling Matter

Have you seen Real Steel, the robot-boxing movie with Hugh Jackman? A washed up old gym-rat uses his mediocre boxing talent and penchant for bad bets to claw his way through the robot-boxing underworld in semi-futuristic America. After several bad draws and some family drama, he finds himself sneaking through a huge compound of shelves and cubicles of leftover ‘bot parts with his young son, trying to assemble enough bits and pieces to rebuild something. Anything.

An arm here, a joint there…eventually they find an almost completely assembled, early model robot to work with, even though he requires more scalped parts a well!

real steel
It’s a very modern philosophy to think of recycling as a “green” choice, focused on saving, helping, or otherwise impacting the Earth. For thousands of years reduce, reuse, and recycle has been the mantra of every reasonably thrifty and inventive culture.

In America, the Indians were the first people we find living by the standard “waste not, want not.” From east to west, you could find the native cultures assigning a valuable use to every bit and piece of vegetation and animal harvested–from hides to hooves and brains to bones. From roots to stems to leaves and flowers, plant life was used for medicine, food and flavoring, decorations, dyes, and preservatives.

Later, colonial metal-smiths became expert recyclers. In the early colonies, much of America’s natural resources were still being discovered and tin was in particular short supply, being one of the two main components of common pewter at the time. While readily available in England, the Crown controlled tin and pewter exports to the New World with an iron fist, and America’s craftsmen had to learn how to meltdown and re-craft damaged or unused pewterware to continue in business. This gave early rise to the affable vagabond character of the tin peddler, buying, selling, and trading old stuff for new stuff… then remaking the old stuff into new stuff and hitting the road again.

tin peddler 1904

But large-scale, national metal recycling finally hit pay dirt in the United States in the 30s and 40s as the country came out of the threadbare years of the Great Depression and into the passionate patriotism of World War II. Desperate to fund the war effort, the government unleashed a multi-pronged PR campaign in support of every conceivable form of recycling. From raising your own chickens and canning your own vegetables, to community collection drives for metal, kitchen fats, and paper products, American as a nation was committed to reduce, reuse, and recycle to support the boys abroad.

This nation-wide effort dovetailed with the development of the country’s first municipal landfill in California in 1937. As the economy grew after the war, so did the amount of consumer waste. And some of it was in the form of copious sources of metal. Appliances. Vehicles. Construction trash. Large portions of the manufacturing industry were already geared up from the war effort to recycle, so as these metal products began to wear out, the infrastructure was in place to make use of it. Since then, steel has become America’s number one recycled material, with more than 50% of all the steel, nationwide now considered to be a recycled product.

scrap metal WWII
More than 60% of the average household appliance (think washer, dryer, water heater) is steel, and these days 25-90% of that average is recycled steel. In 2011 more than 90% of the country’s steel appliances were recycled at the end of their service life. Currently nearly 100% of vehicles leaving the market are recycled. The interior parts are scraped out and then the steel framing accounts for 60% of the total makeup of the vehicle.

And just like Jackman’s character in Real Steel, it’s economics driving the process.

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