Fed Up With Recycling? These Stories of Historical Salvage May Inspire You

Sometimes sorting the trash can seem like just another chore imposed on us by the modern world. But scrap metal salvage is as old as metalworking itself, and has played a vital role in history. Learn more about the process throughout history.

A recycled giant

The Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This 33-metre high statue of the Sun-god Helios was built by the ancient Greeks, and was itself partly made from recycled goods; it had an iron skeleton and bronze plates that were re-forged from weapons left by a previous invading army. The statue stood for fifty-four years before it was destroyed in an earthquake, when its remains on the ground were so impressive that they were left untouched for over eight centuries. After this time the island was captured by the Saracens, and the bronze remains were melted down and sold on, needing nearly a thousand camels to transport them.

Statues into statues

Metal recycling took place in the Roman Empire, particularly of bronze statues. These could have been figures whose subjects were no longer remembered or had fallen from favour or statues captured from a conquered territory. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Sculpture reports that the Romans invaded the Etruscan city of Volsinii purely to seize two thousand bronze statues, which were sent back to scrap metal dealers. This bronze was melted down and recast as a variety of objects - including new statues.

Salvaged stays

As war became more industrialised, the demand for raw materials increased, as did the need for salvaging. In the First World War, recycled metals were obtained from an unlikely source. The corset, a metal frame designed to squeeze women's bodies into an ideal shape, was already fading in popularity—not least among the women who had to undergo such constrictions for the sake of beauty. But in 1917 the US War Industries Board decided they were a waste of metal and asked women to stop wearing them and recycle the metal that was used in them. The reclaimed steel was enough to build two warships, presumably manned by sailors who had little idea of the metal's previous use.

So next time you pop a drinks can in the recycling bin, bear in mind you're not just helping to save the planet, but carrying on a tradition that has taken place throughout history in one way or another.