In Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War (Cambridge University Press 2015), Peter Thorsheim explores the role of waste and recycling in Britain under conditions of total war. Thorsheim argues wartime salvage efforts linked civilians socially as well as materially to the war. Salvage drives served to focus people’s efforts and helped them make sense of the events around them and their role in the conflict. The ebb and flow of resource scarcity served as a metric in which to measure changing military and strategic concerns against the Axis, but also complicated the wartime alliance between the British Empire and the United States.
Although essential for national survival, Thorsheim shows how wartime salvage tended to alienate as much as unite the British public. Vigorous, but often ill-conceived, salvage efforts led to infringements of civil liberties, destroyed historical artifacts, and damaged private property. Some materials were never recycled and left to languish in enormous dumps long after the end of the war. The national salvage effort angered thousands and left many without compensation for their losses, souring a generation on recycling.
Unlike the environmental movement of the 1970s, Waste into Weapons shows recycling was a means to further destruction rather than conservation. Thorsheim’s book sheds light on a little known episode in environmental history and provides alternative genealogy of recycling in the twentieth century.
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