JHES-Journal for the History of Environment and Society

Recycling: the industrial city and its surrounding countryside, 1750–1940

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Laurent Herment (CRH-CNRS-EHESS)

Thomas Le Roux (CRH-CNRS-EHESS)

Published Nov 29, 2017


This article aims to introduce the volume and to propose a global reflection about the issue of recycling between the eighteenth century and the Second World War. The purpose  of  this  volume  is  to  look  at  some  historical  aspects  of  recycling  from  a  European perspective, during the two centuries in which the exchange of matter between town and country was hotly debated, up until 1940, when a significant modernization of agriculture took place. It is based on a workshop held in Paris in April 2015 which aimed to bring together the work of environmental historians, historians of science and rural historians on the recycling of urban and industrial waste in agriculture. The first part of the article provides an overview of the history of recycling during the long nineteenth century. On a country- or continent-wide scale, structural change in cycles of matter began to be examined around the middle of the nineteenth century. The worry caused by the accumulation of waste after 1860 induced historians to idealize the first half of the nineteenth century as a golden period of recycling, whereas, in fact, it was between 1750 and 1850 that the failure to use, in one way or another, the residues and by-products of production first became a problem. The second part is devoted to the great difficulty of recycling industrial waste  in  agriculture  during  the  first  half  of  the  nineteenth  century.  Based  upon  the experiences of the famous French scientist Payen who was an industrialist and chemist but also a pioneer in accounting practice, the global logic and the limits of  the  recycling  project  are  examined.  In  the  following  section  we  investigate  the  progressive abandonment by scientists, engineers, and politicians of the recycling project after 1850. A new era began with the increasing volume of imported ferti-lizer, guano first, but also fossil phosphates, nitrate of soda, etc. In the final section we aim to assess the value of recycling. Using the example of “basic slag”, we will demonstrate that the value of recycling was closely linked with its profitability for industrialists and for farmers.

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