Did Wartime Recycling Destroy More British Heritage than the Blitz?

That’s the startling conclusion from Peter Thorsheim, a historian at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His 2013 article “Salvage and Destruction: The Recycling of Books and Manuscripts in Great Britain during the Second World War” (version of record here; hosted on Thorsheim’s own website here) details how Britons recycled 600 million books in 1943 alone, not to mention letters, ephemera, business records, and historic manuscripts – compared to only about 20 million volumes destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

“Salvage and Destruction” and Thorsheim’s recent book Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War capture the remarkable scope of Britain’s recycling efforts during the war. Steel, iron, and aluminum were the most obvious materials whose conservation were important to the war effort, but in wartime Britain even paper, rubble, and food scraps were saved. The former had plenty of direct uses in military production: as various propaganda pamphlets explained, one envelope could make the wads for fifty rifle cartridges, three comic books could be converted into the cardboard cups for two 25-pounder artillery shells, and a breakfast cereal box could be recycled into two practice targets.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waste into Weapons is how political the recycling process was. In many cases the need to mobilize support led to counter-productive collection efforts, like piles of tin cans whose tin content wasn’t worth the effort of its extraction. The hordes of children who were mobilized for scrap drivers were considered an obstacle and a waste of effort by the professional salvage industry (like prewar rag-and-bone men), who fought against state and volunteer interference in their work for the entirety of the war. Being seen to recycle everything, for example, was important to convincing American agents for Lend-Lease that Britain was fully committed to the war effort. On the other hand, at least two Quaker conscientious objectors ran afoul of the law for refusing to recycle, since they considered that tantamount to aiding the war effort. Whether or not the wartime recycling effort was well managed – and Thorsheim’s book offers a lot of evidence that it was not – the politics of total war made the idea inescapable.

h/t: New Books in History


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