Industrial Recycling: Nothing New

3 July 2007 at 4:26 pm 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

Popular myth holds that pre-industrial societies were models of environmental sensitivity, practicing “sustainable development” and minimizing waste. Industrialism, it is said, upset the delicate balance between man and environment, encouraging overproduction, overconsumption, and a disregard for the natural world. To many environmentalists, capitalism’s primary legacy is the strip mine and the garbage dump.

Shephard Krech’s Ecological Indian: Myth and History has done much to debunk the fable of pre-modern environmentalism, at least in the North American context. Pre-industrial societies produced massive amounts of garbage and cared little for environmental stewardship. Now we learn from Pierre Desrochers and Karen Lam that industrial recycling — a key component of modern sustainable development programs — was widespread during the Gilded Age. In “‘Business as Usual’ in the Industrial Age” (Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, vol. 1, 2007) Desrochers and Lam describe how woollen rags, old iron, manure, animal parts, butter-making waste, and other byproducts were recycled, for profit, in the UK and US. Here’s but one of many colorful examples (not for the feint of heart or weak of stomach):

Dead dogs and cats, whether picked up from sewers, rivers, and dung-heaps or killed for the purpose, once were a profitable business (Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education 1872). Simmonds (1876: 66) describes how every part of the thousands of dogs drowned every year in New York City was put to some useful account. Among other things, the fat was rendered for soap, the skins sold to glove makers and the bones and flesh made into an “excellent compost.” Interestingly, the skins of the biggest mastiffs were fit to be tanned for boots and shoes or turned into thick riding-gloves, while those of smaller dogs could be “dressed white for gloves.” Meanwhile, in Paris, a tax on dogs had led to a large number of canines being drowned in the Seine. Soon afterwards, however, many of the dead bodies were recovered and boiled down in order to extract the fat for the preparation of kid gloves, especially of straw-coloured one. Of course, the Paris glove trade had long relied on the same material and the carcasses of dogs at the time were worth “from 7d. to 8d. each, the skin fetching 2d. to 3d.; the fat, boiled down, 5d. a pound; and the bones from 1/2d. to 1d., according to weight.”

Not surprisingly, dead horses were much more valuable than dogs. Simmonds (1876: 56-7) describes thus the fate of the up to 400 horse carcasses collected each week from within a five mile radius of Charing Cross (London):

A dead horse will fetch from 20s. to 50s., or an average value of 35s. The total weight in pounds of the carcase is from 672 lbs. to 1138 lbs., or an average of 905 lbs. The following is the comparative value and uses of the several parts in the metropolis:

  • Hair, about 1 lb., worth 1s. to 1s.3d.; used for haircloth, mattresses, bags for crushing oilseed, plumes, &c.
  • Hide, 50 lbs., worth 12s.; used for tanning and covering tables, &c.
  • Tendons, 6lbs., made into glue and gelatine.
  • Boiled flesh, 252 lbs., worth 31s.6d.; meat for cats, dogs, and poultry.
  • Blood, 60 lbs.; for prussiate of potash and manure.
  • Intestines, 25 lbs., worth 1s.; for covering sausages, &c.
  • Grease, 28 lbs., worth 4s8d.; for candles, soap, &c.
  • Bones, 60lbs., 4s.6d. per cwt.; used for knife-handles, manure, phosphorus, and superphosphate of lime.
  • Hoofs, 12 lbs, 8s. per cwt.; made into pincushions and snuff-boxes when polished, or for gelatine, glue, and prussiate.
  • Old shoes, 10 lbs.; worth 5s. to 10s. the cwt. for old iron; sometimes re-worked up into shoes.

There is also an interesting story about the use of rats to strip animal carcasses down to the bone, after which the rats themselves were killed and consumed: “Furs were valuable and found a ready market, skins made superior gloves because of their strength and elasticity, bones were turned into toothpicks and tendons were boiled up to make gelatine wrappers for bonbons (Playfair 1892: 568). The flesh would be fed to pigs in domestic farms or salted and cured and packed onto ships to be sent in the millions to China where it was considered appropriate for human consumption.” Yum.

A key point is that these recycling programs were established by profit-seeking entrepreneurs, not social activists or government agencies. For Desrochers’s work on modern industrial recycling see here and here.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism, Institutions, Myths and Realities.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. links for 2007-07-04 at Jacob Christensen  |  4 July 2007 at 7:26 am

    […] Organisations and Markets – Industrial Recycling: Nothing New Now we learn from Pierre Desrochers and Karen Lam that industrial recycling — a key component of modern sustainable development programs — was widespread during the Gilded Age. (tags: environment recycling history economics research) […]

  • 2. Gary Peters  |  5 July 2007 at 11:16 am

    I have to admit that I find the economic discussion of pre-industrial environmentalism / sustainability fascinating. I am particularly intrigued by the arguments (for, against, or lack of) the imposing of costly (direct costs and opportunity costs) environmental practices on less developed countries/economies. Then again, perhaps I am just trying to ease my conscience as I contemplate laying exotic hardwood flooring in my house. I am definitely looking differently at my “expensive” dog after Peter’s post. We named her “Daisy”, perhaps we should have name her “Gloves.”

  • 3. Sudha Shenoy  |  6 July 2007 at 10:27 am

    Relatively greater scarcity of resources — relatively lower outputs, in previous centuries in the DCs. You used everything you could. ‘Recycling’ in the late 20th century uses up resources. It’s the equivalent of Marie Antoinette playing at being a milkmaid.

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