During the Second World War, Great Britain embarked on an unprecedented program of recycling. Peter Thorsheim examines this campaign in Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War. In a meticulously researched study, Thorsheim demonstrates that Great Britain’s ambitious recycling policies resulted not in a golden era of sustainable resource use, but in tensions over class, gender, civil liberties, and the proper role of the state. Thorsheim organizes his book into three parts. Part I, “Beating Plowshares into Swords,” traces recycling from the Industrial Revolution to the onset of the Second World War. He shows how the destructive battles of the First World War encouraged British society to abandon a culture of waste disposal in favor of salvage. While salvage waned during the interwar years, Nazi aggression in 1939 encouraged Great Britain to embrace recycling, first as a means to boost patriotism, and only secondarily to supply the armaments industry. Thorsheim draws on a variety of sources in this section. To trace activities of the Salvage Department, he cites minutes of the Ministry of Supply, correspondence between officials, and articles in the Times of London, among other sources. In Part II, “Alliances,” Thorsheim highlights the importance of diplomacy in Great Britain’s recycling campaign. In this case, officials in the Ministry of Supply sought to persuade the United States—Great Britain’s main supplier of war materiel—that they were making every effort to salvage scrap from business, bombed-out buildings, and other sources. Thorsheim draws here on correspondence from Edward Stettinius, head of the Lend Lease Program, in addition to the New York Times, and the papers of Lord Beaverbrook, head of the Ministry of Supply. This section also explores decisions to criminalize the disposal of household rubbish and other items. Part III, “History, Culture, and Civil Liberties,” examines tensions that emerged over recycling. Major issues concerned government campaigns to recycle old books, ledgers, and other documents, many of which could be historically important. Thorsheim notes how Joan Wake and other dedicated preservationists were alarmed at the potential destruction of historically valuable documents. As Thorsheim states, “Unfortunately, the warnings of preservationists had little effect. Most people insisted that the important thing was to win the war—by any means necessary” (p. 182). Thorsheim’s book builds on the work of Tim Cooper, who examined the way that municipal solid waste officials in Great Britain added recycling to their traditional mission of disposal during the Second World War. Yet Thorsheim also considers the government’s recycling policies from the standpoint of housewives, private scrap dealers, and other ordinary citizens. By exploring these multiple perspectives, Thorsheim exposes the contradictions and paradoxes that plagued recycling during the war. One issue concerned the role of women in salvage drives. While some government officials saw women as a potentially valuable source of volunteer labor, some private scrap dealers saw them as ill-informed “busy bodies,” intruding into a male sphere of business. Thorsheim also examines the Women’s Voluntary Services that exhorted women across Great Britain to donate aluminum pots and pans for the war effort. Not surprisingly, many people were angry at the government when they learned that perfectly useful utensils could not be melted down because they were made of cast aluminum. Class tensions also emerged over the forced requisition of iron railings. Thorsheim illustrates how some people saw railings as symbols of privilege and wealth while others wanted to preserve railings because they protected the privacy of urban residents. In the end, recycling on such a wide scale encouraged both patriotism and widespread feelings of frustration. It was hardly surprising that citizens of Great Britain did not embrace recycling again until several decades after the end of the war. Peter Thorsheim’s work is a welcome addition to scholarship on recycling and the relationship between war and the environment. It should be important reading for students and specialists in environmental history, and for those interested in the intrusive effects of total war on modern society. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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