Toward a Zero Waste Economy: Scope and Impact of the Nazi “Recycling Regime”

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:50 AM
Virginia Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Heike Weber, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
Sociologist Zsuzsa Gille coined the term ‘waste regime’ to indicate that each society holds characteristic ways of organizing and treating waste inside its relative production and consumption systems. My presentation lends her term to characterize the ‘Nazi recycling regime’. First, it sketches its extensive material scope. Second, it stresses the fact that Nazi waste recovery efforts were not only embedded in the racist, autarkist and expansionist politics of the National Socialist regime but also in the formulation of a new waste ideology, namely the idea of a closed-loop economy – something we would nowadays term a “Zero Waste” economy.

Nazi recycling activities began well before the Nazi regime sparked war, and they had been enforced by 1936 as part of the Four-Year-Plan. Over time, Nazi waste collections included more and more waste materials. Measured by quantity, iron and metals, paper, textiles, and bones were of utmost importance, but autarkic and, subsequently, wartime restrictions made the Nazi government install recycling structures also for tin, rubber or even the tungsten filaments of light bulbs. In parallel, the propagandistic idea of “using the useless” from the mid-1930s was shaped into a totalitarian theory of a “closed loop economy” by 1940/41: In its effort to restructure the national, and later, European waste flows, the Nazi dictatorship propagated a so called Kreislauf-Wirtschaft in which no waste whatsoever should be lost to the war economy. However, this remained mere ideology. Sources suggest that collected waste amounts were massive, but that much of these actually were never recycled due to lacking transport and recipients. The main importance of the Nazi recycling efforts hence remained ideological: First, waste collections mobilized individual citizens; second, recycling served as evidence for the reformulation of the national economy along National Socialist premises.