Homo Metallicus: Is Recycling the New Garbage? (2008)

by Jane Anne Morris

Sculptural wall of rusty bent vertical copper strips.The history of Homo metallicus mirrors more than technological prowess: consequences may be closer than they appear. And, they are coming from our blind spot.

Before humans started hammering portable copper mirrors about five thousand years ago, the only mirrors were pools of clear still water, reflecting trees and sky. A thousand years after those first handheld reflectors, people began making them of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Production of copper and its alloys fouled the clear pools, consumed the trees, and sullied the sky. Today, the view from the slag heap takes in not only the mine but the town dump.

Meanwhile, the concept of recycling has acquired an aura more saintly than the practice of recycling warrants. In my own small way, I once contributed to recycling mythology. So here, taking copper as my starting point, I unpack the assumptions that can lead from a justifiable horror at metal mining practices, to an all-too-uncritical embrace of recycling.

Copper Through the Ages

Native Americans in Wisconsin made points and knives of hammered copper.

The Mesopotamians ushered in the Age of Bronze by making of it a statue of a bull. Harder than copper, bronze holds an edge better and is more resistant to corrosion. In the earliest fortified towns it was used for shields and helmets, and battle axes, for attacking both humans and trees. Chisels, awls, pendants, sickles, bracelets, swords, 4000-year old Chinese coins shaped like tools–all of bronze. Bronze tweezers to clean wounds made by bronze dagger blades.

By 3000 years ago copper, bronze, and iron were in widespread use in the middle and near east, for knives, razors, hammers, axes, always axes. The Assyrians wore armor of leather and bronze; the Greeks and Romans used bronze and steel. In the Middle Ages, as advances in weaponry relegated chain mail to the status of underwear, metal-plated armor evolved. Bronze was hammered into huge cathedral doors, and cast into bells that rang out alarms and devotions.

Copper alloyed with zinc produced brass, long used for locks, doorknockers, and chandeliers. Bronze cannons powered by the gunpowder that became widespread in the 16th century launched brass artillery shells. Ships of war were bottomed in copper against corrosion, then clad in iron against artillery attack.

Somebody discovered that if you pour molten lead through a sieve off a tower into a tub of water, the droplets form spheres. Hardened with antimony, these spheres become musket shot. About 1850, copper and brass shot cartridges replaced paper ones.

Coopers shaped copper into barrel hoops. Bronze was used in bearings, gears, ship screws and propellers. Upholsterers tapped brass tacks. and turned sundry alloys into an array of kettles, dishes and trays. Tinkers kept them in repair.

But our copper habit was then in its infancy.

The late nineteenth century development of electricity stimulated demand for copper and other metals as the telegraph, telephone, light bulb, and other appliances went from curiosities to necessities. Fine copper wire was wound around armatures for motors and turbine generators at hydroelectric plants, and soon, steam-fired ones. It twisted around the inside of new gadgets and appliances. Outside of them, copper wire and lead-sheathed cables were strung behind walls, between buildings, along streets, across continents, under oceans.

A fledgling automobile industry blossomed, consuming fifteen to fifty pounds of copper per vehicle, plus a full metal complement of its sister elements.1 The US alone has produced well over 700 million cars and trucks.2 The infamous 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast could have been heard on only a few tens of thousands of radios in the world, perhaps half of them in the US. Each contained its cache of coiled copper.3

Copper usage surged to feed the second world war machine, then surged again afterwards during an unprecedented expansion in production of, well, everything, from people to pollution to power tools.

By now we have made billions upon billions of radios, televisions, phones, copy machines, blenders, fax machines, bun-warmers, electric toothbrushes, washer-dryer sets, and all manner of electronic gadgets, most in just the last few generations. Add the factories to make all of this stuff, and the electricity to run both factories and appliances. The armature of a single 500 megawatt turbine generator uses about fifteen tons of copper wire.4 Today, over half a million miles of transmission lines crisscross the US alone.

Mining “Externalities”

But all this copper, lead, tin, zinc, and iron was not handed over on a silver platter. After the first nearly pure lumps and nodules were chipped out of rock faces or fished out of streambeds, most of it was acquired only with much greater effort. It had to be mined, from deeper and deeper in the earth, or farther away. It then had to be concentrated and smelted, from poorer and poorer ores. Early copper mining used ores as rich as 20%, 30%, or sometimes even 50% copper. Today, ore as poor as 0.3% is mined.5

The earliest smelting, for copper and lead, used trees to coax from rich ores the treasured metals. Wood that fed the flames that fired the bricks, heated the houses, cooked the food, and baked the bread was used also to feed the smelters. Forests receded from the villages, the riverbanks, the hillsides.

As early as 8000 years ago deforestation-caused soil erosion led to abandonment of villages in the middle east. Four thousand years ago the Indus valley society’s end was hastened by the cutting of the forests required in part by extensive metal smelting.6 As Plato lamented in his Critias that centuries-old deforestation had left parts of Greece looking like “the skeleton of a sick man,” deforestation began in earnest in Rome. The Romans burned millions of tons of charcoal in their smelters, and left 20-30 million tons of slag.7

Settlements grew up around mines, and trees disappeared from wider and wider swathes of the surrounding countryside. In the early Bronze Age of Central Europe, a day’s work of a smelter consumed thirteen tons of rock and twenty-five cubic yards of wood to yield about 600 pounds of raw copper.8 By the thirteenth century, most European settlements around mines were treeless, and parts of north and northwest China were experiencing wood shortages. In 1475 in Rhineland, one district alone required 5000 woodcutters to make 10,000 tons of charcoal per year to fuel the metal works.9

The poor woodchoppers of classic Euromyths, the hollow-eyed figures bent double under their loads in National Geographic postures, all scoured the land for wood to burn in the metal works. Brueghel’s pastoral scenes hint at the extent of the cutting of the forests. By the 15th century in Europe there was so little wood left that ships had to be made of imported wood, or abroad. By the 16th century, most Portuguese ships were built in the colonies.10

The gunpowder that made projectiles possible also opened the way for the use of blasting for deeper tunneling and faster acid mine drainage.11 In the late 17th century, coal was used not only for smelting, but for pumps and engines, too. The coal-diggings filled with acid water that seeped or gushed into aquifers; open-pit mines stained rivers and the watersheds they nourished.12

In the 19th century US, one blast furnace in Pennsylvania used 750 acres of wood per year.13 At the Rio Tinto copper mine in Spain, circa 1900, ore roasting to speed oxidation of sulfides produced “strangling vapors that set men [sic] and animals coughing…killed off every green thing it touched [and] killed every tree within ten or fifteen miles.”14 Then oil and natural gas joined the pantheon of fossil fuels that powered the mining and processing, and it shows. The largest Superfund site in the US is a copper mine near Butte, Montana, formerly operated by Anaconda Corporation.15

On a copper-lined chute, the whole world is sliding into the ecological footprint of a single species.

How Much Did We Get?

By 3000 years ago when many so-called “civilizations” were huddled in fortified villages arming themselves with an array of bronze and iron weapons, humans had mined a mere 10,000 tons of copper.16

From that time until about 1800, for all the ornamented bronze bells, full-length mirrors, dented helmets, and early industrial machinery and engines, we had mined but five million tons of copper.17

And for the next century’s dose of the red metal, for coppering the bottoms of Spanish frigates,18 brass cartridge casings, the machinery of the full force of the Industrial Revolution — we humans mined more than twice what had ever been mined: 12 million tons of copper for the 19th century.19

The next fifty years, encompassing two world wars and the spread of the automobile, the radio, the washing machine, among other cultural signposts, saw us wrest 70 million tons of copper from the earth’s crust.

And since 1950 when Picasso made his bronze She-Goat,20 we have mined at least another 275 millions tons of copper.

Time Period Amount of Copper Mined
6000 to 3000 years ago 10,000 tons
3000 years ago to 1800 5 million tons
1800-1900 12 million tons
1900-1950 70 million tons
Since 1950 275+ million tons
Cumulative total 360+ million tons

Put the numbers from that chart onto a graph, and you will see a slope like the one where your floor meets your wall.

Where is this 360 Million Tons of Copper Now?

Copper production since the dawn of the twentieth century comprises at least 98% of all the copper ever produced. Where is it?

Only a tiny fraction of mined copper is dissipated (in exploding ordnance, or copper in chemical form used in fungicides, herbicides, dyes, etc.) As for the rest, unlike the forests of trees, the veins of coal, the barrels of oil used to fuel the smelters and the mining machinery and pumps.

Thousand-year-old hammered copper points stolen a century ago from sacred Indian burial grounds still sit behind glass cases in the Wisconsin State Historical Museum. Picasso’s bronze She-Goat still thrills sightseers at the Museum of Modern Art, while most of the cars, radios, and televisions you have owned, not to mention blow dryers and that blender you burned out making pesto, sit in landfills somewhere.

There is still an enormous reservoir of already-refined metal lying around waiting to be reused. From the time of melting battle-axes into coins and back again, it has been understood that metals, valued always for their strength, their corrosion-resistance, their malleability — could be re-shaped and re-formed into whatever suited the needs of the moment, or the era.

You can bet that native americans didn’t throw out their copper knives after one use. Artisans who cast bells through the ages knew to scour the villages for broken bronze vessels, cracked mirrors, discarded brass door-knockers and the like to melt down to cast a new village bell. The Vikings hammered stolen crucifixes into brooches.21 Eighteenth century churchwardens were accused of stealing the lead from church roofs to sell to plumbers.22

What about all of the metals accumulating above ground? Compared to mining and processing the primary ore, copper recovery from scrap involves fewer technological steps and less capital investment. Energy costs are 5% to 33% of the energy costs of using primary ores, depending on the type of scrap input and the end-use desired.23 The technological challenges and environmental costs of mining are bypassed completely.

The Sting

This is where a conventional analysis would veer off into a swoon for recycling, as I did in the original “Homo Metallicus,” written in 1995 to support a mining moratorium.24 I imagined hundreds of millions of tons of copper, one transistor radio’s worth at a time, wedged under blotchy mattresses in landfills. A giant green banner announced, “RECYCLING, YAY!!”

My mind furnished the diorama, too: a Native American sharpening an ever-smaller copper knife; an armorer fussing to keep his knight’s metal jacket in repair as long as possible;25 townspeople bringing baskets of cracked latches and broken doorknockers to re-cast for a new village bell. And, yes, a sweaty biblical smith beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.26

While arguing against metal mining, and laboring under the hallucinatory wholesomeness of that vision, I pulled a Bait-and-Switch. On myself. In the darkness of the Switch, a blind spot of major proportions lurks, and I stood in the middle of it.

That diorama was the Bait. It faded like a time-dissolve in a documentary, and at the moment of blackout, I made the Switch. Ta-Daa!! emerged the concept of RECYCLING, swaddled in impressive statistics and good vibes.

That Switch in the Dark allowed me to more or less equate a tinker fixing a teakettle with a metal processing plant digesting a truckload of smashed appliances. I told myself that a long but unbroken cultural thread linked the tinker’s taps to the roar of the recycling plant’s huge furnaces, flotation tanks, and electrolytic baths.

So there I was standing in my blind spot when a municipal recycling truck rumbled by, bearing a load of freshly sorted metal scrap.27 Down the road a piece, it joined another truck bringing concentrated ore from a mine. This is the part of the story that I did not want to think about: both trucks headed for the same facility, one that turned out raw copper in the form of ingots, wires, and sheets. A few steps later, factories pressed and laced the shiny copper into products painstakingly designed for short life, non-reusability of parts, and difficulty of repair. Into products calculated to, for fifteen minutes or so, meet a stylistic milepost created and manipulated by the corporation selling the product.

Once purchased, the product (except for the energy it uses) becomes a “liability” for the economy, because being in current use blocks the next sale. After you toss it — landfill or recycle bin, it makes little difference — purchase of a replacement helps to “grow” the economy once again. The point of our system is not need and use, but sale and profit. The goal is to move through the cycle — and resources — as quickly as possible, honoring the principles of planned obsolescence, conspicuous consumption, and perpetual economic “growth.” Recycling is part of this cycle.

Where I had equated the smith and the recycling plant, I should have equated the mine with the recycling center or landfill. A landfill or a recycling center is just another source of copper, another kind of mine. Metal smelting and refining, whether it be by flotation, chemical solvents, heating, or electrochemical methods, is nasty business.28 Separating the copper from a plastic-encased circuit board is no environmental picnic. Except for minor differences in processing at the plant, the source of the copper — landfill, recycle bin, mine — is irrelevant.

Beyond Recycling

What is relevant is that when the biblical smith beheld a compromised spear, he wondered whether to make another spear, or a pruning hook. Or maybe a scythe. Or, whether to set the metal aside for later use. But, he did not wonder whether to chuck the spear into the goat pasture. For the smith, “use” included what we would call “reuse.”

Yet, he was not recycling. The concept of recycling does not make sense unless you are already in the habit of discarding usable material. Recycling is parasitic on garbage, in both a material and a sociolinguistic sense. Garbage is defined not by physical characteristics, but by social ones. A refilled glass milk bottle is not garbage. The same bottle thrown “away” after a single usage is.

Recycling–a term that did not take on its current meaning until the 1970s29 — is akin to a retronym. Retronyms like land line and acoustic guitar are applied retrospectively and retroactively after some new development (here, cell phones and electric guitars) makes their invention necessary for clarity’s sake. So, when we realized that a garbage can or the town dump could essentially be reopened as a mine, we christened it “recycling.” Recycling signifies not a new attitude toward resources, but the large-scale discovery of new metal “deposits.” Recycling (as opposed to reuse) does not emerge as a concept until the idea of Garbage is so well established that most people cannot imagine life without it. (See also, “Car.”)

From the smith to the modern recycler, we can tally the societal “innovations” that distinguish them. Producing for profit instead of need is one. Producing to meet false or created needs is another. Massaging the economy to insure that the apparent and immediate cost of repair far exceeds that of buying a new item is also critical. Most of the externalities churned out as a result of the smith’s craft were underfoot, not foisted upon the disempowered a county or a continent away. Tax policies, lax enforcement of environmental regulations, and artificially cheap fuel, electricity, and transportation, all pile on to subsidize mining, recycling, and for-profit manufacturing. Today, society’s incentives work against making long lasting, needed products for use and reuse, and in favor of what Paul Palmer of the Zero Waste Institute calls the Garbage Paradigm.

Recycling leaves the garbage problem untouched in the same way that energy efficiency leaves our energy policies and practices unaddressed. When I screw in an efficient light bulb, I am glad to be using less electricity to illuminate my writing desk, but I don’t fool myself that I’m saving the planet. I know that my act frees up more kilowatt-hours to be sold at rock-bottom rates to corporations that manufacture throw-away frou-frou or fashion statement cars. Similarly, when we dutifully recycle metal (and I do so, when possible), we help manufacturers save energy and increase their profit margins.

However, we do nothing to alter the monstrous system that lavishes incentives on production of waste. Adding a nasty re-refining process (and calling it recycling) to a nasty mining process does not get us out of our tragic loop: wreaking havoc so that we can “grow” the economy at a dizzying and unsustainable level. This is the lesson I take from Paul Palmer’s heartening work. In his own words,

“The basic problem that has always plagued recycling is that it accepts garbage creation as fundamental. Zero waste strategies reject garbage creation as a failure, actually an abomination that threatens the planet…”30

Rejecting the Abomination of Garbage

Put yourself into a trance. Erase the idea of Garbage, and substitute Zero Waste. Now, think about radios.

I am something of a radio junkie, and I blush to think of how many copper-laden radios I have consigned to landfills. But I would still be using my first AM-FM radio if I had been able to get it fixed. I’ve never bought one as part of an interior decorating scheme, nor abandoned one for any reason but nonfunctionality.

Usually, what goes wrong amounts to a frayed or loose wire somehow involved with the volume control, tuning knob, or speakers. I’ve opened up most of my broken radios in repair efforts that almost always turned into autopsies. Sometimes, rescue attempts became demolition as my efforts to merely open the box disabled critical components. On other occasions, soldering gun in hand, I just couldn’t get at the spot where I knew the problem lay.

I’d gladly pay an extra few bucks for screws (instead of plastic rivets) as fasteners, more secure wiring connections, and accessible repair areas. These and other sensible design features that promote long life and easy repair present no great technological challenges. The obstacles — and there are many — reside instead in an economic system, complete with ideological props, that depends on the Garbage Paradigm.

The consequence of pretending that “recycling” is a departure from the Garbage Paradigm is that nothing will change. But if we step out of our blind spot, we face a glorious prospect: re-imagining the world without “garbage” that all humans lived in until just a geological blink ago. Dismantling the corporate garbage system will not occur unless we also free ourselves from false needs it fails to satisfy, and attend to deeper needs that it warps.

That world need not be a bleak land of denial. Where is the thrill in throwing out a year-old cell phone? It may be that the most rewarding life possible, as Stephanie Mills explores in Epicurean Simplicity, is one that would please Earth as well as its “highest” primates. Reflecting on her basic requirements, Mills muses, “Meeting these needs as sparingly as possible makes abundant the kinds of riches that can’t be owned.”31 And, I would insist on including the dancing that Emma Goldman would not do without.32


First published in Synthesis/Regeneration 46: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, Summer 2008.

Jane Anne Morris is a corporate anthropologist living in Madison, Wisconsin. Her most recent book is Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” is Stealing Our Democracy (Apex Press).


  1. Encyclopedia Americana 1990.
  2. Motor vehicle production: Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 1994; Encyclopedia Americana 1990; Automotive News 1993, 1994; Effective Technology for Recycling Metal. (Nat’l Assoc. of Secondary Material Industries, Inc., 1971), p. 23; Statistical Abstract of the U.S.: 2007, (p. 658, Table 1031) for figures after 1990.
  3. World Book 1993.
  4. Sir Ronald Prain, Copper: The Anatomy of An Industry (London: Mining Journal Books, Ltd., 1975), p. 41.
  5. Ira B. Joralemon, Copper: The Encompassing Story of Mankind’s First Metal (Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1973), pp. 203, 317; Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World,(NY:Penguin Books, 1991), p. 328; Encyclopedia Americana 1990; Orris C. Herfindahl, Copper Costs and Prices 1870-1957 (Johns Hopkins, Resources for the Future, 1959), pp. 210-11; Prain, pp. 14-15, 272.
  6. Ponting: on metals, esp. pp. 1-123; on deforestation, esp. pp. 69-282.
  7. Description of Roman mines in Joralemon pp. 22-24.
  8. J.M. Coles & A. F. Harding, The Bronze Age in Europe (Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1979), pp. 64-65.
  9. Ponting p. 277.
  10. Ponting p. 278.
  11. William Yandell Elliott, et al., International Control in the Non-Ferrous Metals (New York: Arno Press, 1976), p. 372.
  12. Ponting, pp. 280-89.
  13. Ponting, p. 277.
  14. Joralemon, p. 37.
  15. Engineering News Record, 1-16-95, pp. 34-5.
  16. Encyclopedia Americana, 1990. Several factors make it impossible to cite overall copper production numbers with precision. Among them: 1) numbers for pre-twentieth century amounts are estimates from different sources whose assumptions are either unstated or not consistent; 2) copper production figures sometimes include an undetermined amount of secondary copper (mixed into the smelters); and 3) tonnage is sometimes given in metric tons, sometimes in short tons, sometimes as just plain tons.
  17. Prain, p. 36.
  18. OED, “copper.”
  19. All figures in this section for copper production are based on author calculations from previously cited sources (Coles & Harding, Elliott, Herfindahl, Ponting, Prain) and the following: 1994 Commodity Yearbook (Knight-Ridder Financial/Commodity Research Bureau, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), also 1983 and 1975 editions; Metal Statistics 1985: the Purchasing Guide of the Metal Industries (American Metal Market, 1983, Fairchild Publications), pp. 55-85; Lotte Müller-Ohlsen, Non-Ferrous Metals: Their Role in Industrial Development (Woodhead-Faulkner, in association with Metallgesellschaft AG); and Non-Ferrous Metals: Gaps in Technology (Presented at the Third Ministerial Meeting on Science of OECD Countries, Paris, 1969.) Data is current as of 1995, when an earlier version of this article was published.
  20. Encyclopedia Americana, 1990.
  21. Raymond Lister, The Craftsman in Metal (London: G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1966), p. 150.
  22. Lister p. 39.
  23. C. Suan Tan, An Econometric Analysis of the World Copper Market, (World Bank, Washington D.C., Oct. 1987), p. 37; Gerhard Wagenhals, Lecture Notes in Economics and Mathematical Systems: The World Copper Market, (NY:Springer-Verlag, 1984), p. 19.
  24. The author’s earlier article, “Homo Metallicus: Copper Mining Through The Ages,” was first published in Midwest Headwaters Journal, 1995.
  25. Lister, p. 71.
  26. Isaiah 2:4.
  27. This would be termed “old scrap.” New scrap includes shavings, lumps, and other “fresh leftovers” from the factory floor; old scrap is from already used products. Tan, p. 35; Prain, esp. pp. 143-154.
  28. Al Gedicks, “Exxon Minerals: Big Oil’s Last Stand in Mining?” in Raw Materials Report 1985, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1975; and Mitchell J. Posner and Philip Goldberg, The Strategic Metals Investment Handbook (NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1983), p. 151.
  29. OED.
  30. “The Death of Recycling,” Rachel’s Democracy & Health News #900, March 29, 2007.
  31. Mills, ES (Washington DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2002), p. 2.
  32. “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”