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The Scrap That Made A Difference

In 1982, the first blue box hit the curb in Kitchener, Ont., and shortly thereafter the initiative for recycling waste material spread across Canada. As the three Rs–Reuse, Recycle and Reduce–became catchwords of the environmental movement, Canadians underwent a change in attitude. Many materials previously thought of as trash were recycled rather than thrown away. In fact, what happened in the 1980s was strikingly similar to the recycling fervor that occurred much earlier during WW II.

Early in 1941, the federal government launched the National Salvage Campaign to encourage patriotism of Canadians on the home front. But, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the situation changed because the supply of raw materials from the Pacific was disrupted. This left North Americans short of rubber, tin, vegetable oil and other resources.

Similarly, a shortage of Canada’s own raw materials gradually developed due to the lack of manpower to provide them. As the demand for primary goods for war production increased, the federal government encouraged Canadians to conserve and salvage various materials for conversion into airplanes, tanks and other weapons. Although scarcity in Canada during wartime was not nearly as severe as in Europe, the shortages led the Canadian government to ration tires, gasoline, alcohol and some foodstuffs.

The National Salvage Campaign operated under the Department of National War Services with a few paid organizers, including a headquarters staff of about a dozen, in Ottawa, and about 20 provincial officers. But, it mainly relied on an army of volunteers who formed voluntary committees throughout Canada to salvage needed materials. The Department of National War Services co-ordinated the work of these committees and advised each group on what was wanted and the prices paid for various materials. The same department promoted salvage campaigns and informed the public about collecting scrap by issuing pamphlets, posters, radio and newspaper advertisements. To encourage the salvage effort, it used catchy slogans such as: Dig In and Dig Out the Scrap, and Get Into The Scrap.

Salvage committees were required to register with National War Services under the War Charities Act. Any profits they made had to be spent on concerts, entertainment, recreation, hospitality, information centres, canteens and on other war charities.

In several urban municipalities across Canada, voluntary organizations joined together to form citizens’ committees to co-ordinate all war auxiliary services. One subcommittee of the citizens’ group supervised salvage on a block plan, that is, a particular town or city was divided into zones or blocks each with a leader. Salvage items were then collected by following the regular municipal garbage collection, much like the current recycling pick-up.

In March 1942, Charles LaFerle became the director of the National Salvage Campaign. He had successfully co-ordinated the salvage efforts of the Toronto Citizens’ Committee, and believed that the block plan was the soundest and most economic way of proceeding. As an example, he pointed out that the Winnipeg Patriotic Salvage Corps, by using the block plan, had collected over one million pounds of scrap materials in a single month. “The Winnipeg Corps is one of the strongest, most aggressive and most enterprising of the 1,750 voluntary salvage groups operating throughout the Dominion,” he said.

Besides volunteer citizens’ groups, others such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Salvation Army and The Canadian Legion salvaged materials. Religious groups, service clubs, women’s groups and social service agencies, as well as women at home and schoolchildren, also contributed. Several individuals used their own vehicles to pick up scrap at a time when both gasoline and tires were rationed.

Not surprisingly, the determination of some people to assist in the war effort bordered on the extreme. For example, shortly after the National Salvage Campaign began, Mrs. M.E. Beaddie of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire in Vancouver, and the secretary of that organization’s Memorial Silver Cross Chapter, suggested to her member of Parliament that the copper plaques presented to mothers and spouses of men killed in WW I be returned to the government for scrap. “As each plaque represents a life,” she wrote, “we should be very glad if they could…help save the lives of our husbands and sons.”

In declining the offer, the Hon. Ian Mackenzie emphasized that the salvage value would not warrant giving up what “must be among their most treasured possessions.”

In September 1941, the Red Cross conducted its own national campaign for scrap aluminum which was needed for the manufacture of bomber and fighter planes. Homemakers, schoolchildren and others contributed to this drive. Movie theatres across Canada assisted in a novel way. In exchange for a scrap of aluminum, a child earned free admittance to a matinee. In Sydney Mines, N.S., for example, children left some 1,500 worn out aluminum pots and pans at the cinema’s box office.

Scrap dealers often purchased the salvage collected by voluntary organizations and sent it to smelters and mills for reprocessing. It was a logical way to proceed because dealers knew how to sort and prepare materials for disposal. In order to deflect criticism that they were profiting from the war effort, the scrap dealers, most of whom were Jewish, formed the Canadian Secondary Materials Association in 1942. The association co-operated with the government in monitoring the operations of its own trade.

Besides the Department of National War Services, several other government or Crown-owned wartime salvage bodies evolved–four within the armed services alone. But, the most important ones were Crown corporations such as Wartime Salvage Limited and the Fairmont Company that regulated collections, set prices, found markets and, at times, purchased certain essential materials for war production. In order to understand the importance of some of the salvaged materials during the war, let’s take a closer look at the following items: Iron and steel, oil, fat and bones, rubber and waste paper.

Iron and Steel

Early in the war, the public learned that scrap iron and steel could be reused to produce tanks, airplane engines and ships. A parliamentary committee on war expenditures reported in January 1943 that each soldier “requires an average of 4,900 pounds of steel in the form of carried or supported equipment.”

In fact, the demand for steel was so crucial that by September 1942, the federal government made it illegal to retain more than 500 pounds of steel that was not in use. Consequently, most industries scrapped surplus or obsolete machinery and equipment.

Unwilling to rely on volunteers alone, Wartime Salvage Limited, the Crown’s scrap metal purchaser, established sites throughout Canada for the deposit of scrap iron and steel. For example, it negotiated with grain elevator companies in Western Canada to purchase scrap metal from farmers, voluntary associations and junk dealers “on the spot” for $7 a ton. Wartime Salvage then paid to ship it by rail to the foundries and mills mainly located in Central Canada.

Similar subsidies provided for the shipment of scrap metal from other non-industrial areas of Canada. But, in 1943 and 1944, nearly 200,000 tons of scrap metal came in from Western Canada alone.

Private industry, as well as government and volunteers, gave farmers a chance to co-operate. Dealers for International Harvester–a farm implement company–for example, encouraged farmers to donate their old plows, binders and tractors for war purposes. Otherwise, farmers received the going scrap rate of $7 a ton.

Through the promotional work of the Department of National War Services, the response to the iron and steel drive was overwhelming. By March 1944, iron and steel supplies were sufficient and an organized effort to collect this metal was no longer necessary.

Oil, Fat and Bones

In December 1942, a year after the main supply of vegetable oil for North America was disrupted by war in the Pacific, the government’s Oil and Fat Administrator launched an appeal for animal fat and bones. Promoted by the Department of National War Services, and addressed to women in particular, the campaign even featured a Disney animation entitled Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Firing Line. As Mickey Mouse and Pluto proudly carried a can of fat to the butcher, the narrator claimed that: “A skillet of bacon grease is a little munitions factory” because fat provided glycerine for making explosives.

Domestic uses to which fat was directed included soap making and commercial baking. Along with fat, industry wanted bones for the manufacture of airplane glue and fertilizer. Although the government paid about four cents a pound for rendered drippings, and one cent a pound for fat, not enough was collected because it was just too messy for most homemakers to bother with.


Vegetable oil was not the only commodity to be cut off from North America after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Crude rubber supplies were also severely affected. Consequently, Canada restricted its rubber reserves and reclaimed worn out rubber goods. In 1942, tire rationing for the general public was applied to everyone except owners of essential vehicles. The shortage led Canada and the United States to establish Polymer Corporation to develop synthetic rubber.

Meanwhile, Fairmont Corporation, a Crown corporation that controlled crude rubber supplies, began buying scrap rubber and stockpiling it. Simultaneously, National War Services promoted the salvaging of rubber on a massive scale. While tires for warplanes, army vehicles, and for essential purposes continued to be produced from high quality rubber, scrap rubber was mixed with crude rubber to make items for domestic use.

Voluntary salvage committees helped fill the rubber shortage by taking used tires and tubes, rubber hoses, floor treads and bathing caps to gasoline stations that served as reclaim centres. Carloads of scrap rubber arrived at processing plants in Central Canada from across the country because Fairmont Corporation partially paid the transportation costs.

The post office conducted a very successful scrap rubber drive in rural areas of Quebec and Ontario in the summer of 1942. In a fortnight, letter carriers collected over 1,900 tons, including some bumper pads that over-enthusiastic children tore off docks and wharves much to the dismay of cottagers.

Canadians were thankful in February 1944 when Polymer Corporation–the synthetic rubber company–came into production. While synthetic rubber did not replace natural rubber entirely, it nonetheless meant that the salvaging of reclaim rubber became unnecessary.

Waste Paper

In the fall of 1941, waste paper shortages occurred in Canada because laborers who normally cut pulpwood were enlisting for military service. Fearing a shutdown of the pulp and paper industry, National War Services informed the public and voluntary salvage committees about the critical need. Wartime Salvage, which controlled the use of waste paper, as well as scrap metal, set prices and directed supplies to mills that agreed to pay part of the delivery costs.

By August 1942, the overwhelming response to the call for waste paper resulted in a surplus of about 1,500 tons. The oversupply was difficult to dispose of because the United States stopped buying our waste paper. As the market for old newspapers and cardboard collapsed, Wartime Salvage bought the surplus from volunteers and sold it to the mills at a loss rather than harm long-term paper salvaging efforts.

As expected, the market for waste paper changed once again. By December 1943, Wartime Salvage wanted a minimum of 19,000 tons a month. National War Services promoted the collection of waste paper throughout Canada and got good results. Nonetheless, waste paper continued to be desperately needed. In April 1944, the government increased the demand to 20,000 tons a month stating that “a shortage may jeopardize our whole war effort.”

Well before the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of Normandy, the minister of National War Services, General L.R. LaFleche, made it quite clear that the public would have to collect a lot more paper for the war effort. “We will need paper containers to be thrown overboard for landing operations, to carry medical kits, blood plasma, emergency rations and gas masks. We need paper parachutes to carry food to isolated men, containers to make liners for such solvents as naphtha and benzine.”

Consequently, the response to waste paper drives late in the war was outstanding. For example, a civil service campaign in Ottawa netted 458 tons. But that was little as compared to a three-day campaign held in Toronto in March 1945 when volunteers collected an incredible total of 1,400 tons.

Even though waste paper shortages continued after VE-Day, the federal government soon quit the salvage business. However, the government continued to pay part of the transportation costs for waste paper up to the end of 1945. With the war over, waste paper was still needed especially for housing, but supplies of pulpwood and lumber were still short. The mills became so desperate for supplies that for several months they relied on their own organization to oversee waste paper collections.

The war on waste on the home front officially ended in September 1945 when the Salvage Division of National War Services closed. Curiously enough, during the 4 1/2 years of the division’s existence, its headquarters staff in Ottawa occupied one of the federal government’s newest and most prestigious buildings–the Supreme Court of Canada, while the judges remained in dilapidated quarters.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Jean-Francois Pouillot, the member of Parliament for Témiscouta, Que., who frequently raised the subject in the House of Commons, and in March 1944 remarked: “There is no other country in the world where a beautiful and sumptuous building built for the Supreme and Exchequer Court is serving as offices for recuperation and salvage bodies, while the old building that would be fit for recuperation and salvage bodies is serving as the location for the highest court in this country.”

With the return of peace in 1945, salvage operations soon reverted to a prewar basis–a multi-million-dollar business conducted mainly by scrap dealers and as a fund-raiser for a handful of charitable organizations. Less than a decade later, the public fervor for conserving and reusing scrap materials had all but vanished. In a 1994 article in National Geographic magazine, writer Neil Grove observed: “As the postwar economy boomed and memory of sacrifice faded, our cast-offs graduated to a country dump.”

This is exactly what happened here in Canada and attitudes did not change until recently. Unlike the early 1940s, it is environmental concerns, not the necessities of war, that are forcing us to again practise recycling.


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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.