Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new
materials and objects. It is an alternative to "conventional" waste
disposal that can save material and help lower greenhouse gas
emissions (compared to plastic production, for example).
Recycling can prevent the waste of potentially useful materials and
reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, thereby reducing:
energy usage, air pollution (from incineration), and water pollution
Recycling is a key component of modern waste reduction and is the
third component of the "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle" waste
There are some ISO standards related to recycling such as ISO
15270:2008 for plastics waste and ISO 14001:2004 for environmental
management control of recycling practice.
Recyclable materials include many kinds of glass, paper, and
cardboard, metal, plastic, tires, textiles, and electronics. The
composting or other reuse of biodegradable waste—such as food or
garden waste—is also considered recycling. Materials to be
recycled are either brought to a collection center or picked up from
the curbside, then sorted, cleaned, and reprocessed into new materials
destined for manufacturing.
In the strictest sense, recycling of a material would produce a fresh
supply of the same material—for example, used office paper would be
converted into new office paper or used polystyrene foam into new
polystyrene. However, this is often difficult or too expensive
(compared with producing the same product from raw materials or other
sources), so "recycling" of many products or materials involves their
reuse in producing different materials (for example, paperboard)
instead. Another form of recycling is the salvage of certain materials
from complex products, either due to their intrinsic value (such as
lead from car batteries, or gold from circuit boards), or due to their
hazardous nature (e.g., removal and reuse of mercury from thermometers
1.3 Post-World War II
2.2 Government-mandated demand
3.1 Quality of recyclate
3.2 Quality recyclate action plan (Scotland)
Recycling consumer waste
4.1.1 Curbside collection
4.1.2 Buy-back centers
4.1.3 Drop-off centers
4.1.4 Distributed recycling
Recycling industrial waste
5.2 Plastic recycling
5.2.1 Physical recycling
5.2.2 Chemical recycling
Waste plastic pyrolysis to fuel oil
8 Economic impact
9 Cost–benefit analysis
9.1 Trade in recyclates
10 Criticisms and responses
Energy and material flows
10.3 Working conditions
10.4 Environmental impact
10.5 Possible income loss and social costs
11 Public participation rates
12 Related journals
13 See also
15 Further reading
16 External links
Recycling has been a common practice for most of human history, with
recorded advocates as far back as
Plato in the fourth century
BC. During periods when resources were scarce and
hard to come by, archaeological studies of ancient waste dumps show
less household waste (such as ash, broken tools, and
pottery)—implying more waste was being recycled in the absence of
In pre-industrial times, there is evidence of scrap bronze and other
metals being collected in Europe and melted down for perpetual
Paper recycling was first recorded in 1031 when Japanese
shops sold repulped paper. In Britain dust and ash from wood and
coal fires was collected by "dustmen" and downcycled as a base
material used in brick making. The main driver for these types of
recycling was the economic advantage of obtaining recycled feedstock
instead of acquiring virgin material, as well as a lack of public
waste removal in ever more densely populated areas. In 1813,
Benjamin Law developed the process of turning rags into "shoddy" and
"mungo" wool in Batley, Yorkshire. This material combined recycled
fibers with virgin wool. The
West Yorkshire shoddy industry in towns
such as Batley and Dewsbury lasted from the early 19th century to at
Industrialization spurred demand for affordable materials; aside from
rags, ferrous scrap metals were coveted as they were cheaper to
acquire than virgin ore. Railroads both purchased and sold scrap metal
in the 19th century, and the growing steel and automobile industries
purchased scrap in the early 20th century. Many secondary goods were
collected, processed and sold by peddlers who scoured dumps and city
streets for discarded machinery, pots, pans, and other sources of
metal. By World War I, thousands of such peddlers roamed the streets
of American cities, taking advantage of market forces to recycle
post-consumer materials back into industrial production.
Beverage bottles were recycled with a refundable deposit at some drink
manufacturers in Great Britain and Ireland around 1800, notably
Schweppes. An official recycling system with refundable deposits
was established in Sweden for bottles in 1884 and aluminum beverage
cans in 1982; the law led to a recycling rate for beverage containers
of 84–99 percent depending on type, and a glass bottle can be
refilled over 20 times on average.
American poster from World War II
British poster from World War II
New chemical industries created in the late 19th century both invented
new materials (e.g.
Bakelite ) and promised to transform
valueless into valuable materials. Proverbially, you could not make a
silk purse of a sow's ear—until the US firm Arhur D. Little
published in 1921 "On the Making of Silk Purses from Sows' Ears", its
research proving that when "chemistry puts on overalls and gets down
to business ... new values appear. New and better paths are opened to
reach the goals desired."
Recycling (or "salvage", as it was then usually known) was a major
issue for governments throughout World War II. Financial constraints
and significant material shortages due to war efforts made it
necessary for countries to reuse goods and recycle materials.
These resource shortages caused by the world wars, and other such
world-changing occurrences, greatly encouraged recycling. The
struggles of war claimed much of the material resources available,
leaving little for the civilian population. It became necessary
for most homes to recycle their waste, as recycling offered an extra
source of materials allowing people to make the most of what was
available to them.
Recycling household materials meant more resources
for war efforts and a better chance of victory. Massive government
promotion campaigns, such as the National Salvage Campaign in Britain
Salvage for Victory
Salvage for Victory campaign in the United States, were
carried out on the home front in every combative nation, urging
citizens to donate metal, paper, rags, and rubber as a matter of
Post-World War II
A considerable investment in recycling occurred in the 1970s, due to
rising energy costs.
Recycling aluminum uses only 5% of the energy
required by virgin production; glass, paper and other metals have less
dramatic but very significant energy savings when recycled feedstock
Although consumer electronics such as the television have been popular
since the 1920s, recycling of them was almost unheard of until early
1991. The first electronic waste recycling scheme was implemented
in Switzerland, beginning with collection of old refrigerators but
gradually expanding to cover all devices. After these schemes were
set up, many countries did not have the capacity to deal with the
sheer quantity of e-waste they generated or its hazardous nature. They
began to export the problem to developing countries without enforced
environmental legislation. This is cheaper, as recycling computer
monitors in the
United States costs 10 times more than in China.
Demand in Asia for electronic waste began to grow when scrap yards
found that they could extract valuable substances such as copper,
silver, iron, silicon, nickel, and gold, during the recycling
process. The 2000s saw a large increase in both the sale of
electronic devices and their growth as a waste stream: in 2002,
e-waste grew faster than any other type of waste in the EU. This
caused investment in modern, automated facilities to cope with the
influx of redundant appliances, especially after strict laws were
implemented in 2003.
As of 2014, the
European Union has about 50% of world share of the
waste and recycling industries, with over 60,000 companies employing
500,000 persons, with a turnover of €24 billion. Countries have
to reach recycling rates of at least 50%, while the lead countries are
around 65% and the EU average is 39% as of 2013.
For a recycling program to work, having a large, stable supply of
recyclable material is crucial. Three legislative options have been
used to create such a supply: mandatory recycling collection,
container deposit legislation, and refuse bans. Mandatory collection
laws set recycling targets for cities to aim for, usually in the form
that a certain percentage of a material must be diverted from the
city's waste stream by a target date. The city is then responsible for
working to meet this target.
Container deposit legislation
Container deposit legislation involves offering a refund for the
return of certain containers, typically glass, plastic, and metal.
When a product in such a container is purchased, a small surcharge is
added to the price. This surcharge can be reclaimed by the consumer if
the container is returned to a collection point. These programs have
been very successful, often resulting in an 80 percent recycling
rate. Despite such good results, the shift in collection costs
from local government to industry and consumers has created strong
opposition to the creation of such programs in some areas. A
variation on this is where the manufacturer bears responsibility for
the recycling of their goods. In the European Union, the WEEE
Directive requires producers of consumer electronics to reimburse the
An alternative way to increase supply of recyclates is to ban the
disposal of certain materials as waste, often including used oil, old
batteries, tires, and garden waste. One aim of this method is to
create a viable economy for proper disposal of banned products. Care
must be taken that enough of these recycling services exist, or such
bans simply lead to increased illegal dumping.
Legislation has also been used to increase and maintain a demand for
recycled materials. Four methods of such legislation exist: minimum
recycled content mandates, utilization rates, procurement policies,
and recycled product labeling.
Both minimum recycled content mandates and utilization rates increase
demand directly by forcing manufacturers to include recycling in their
operations. Content mandates specify that a certain percentage of a
new product must consist of recycled material. Utilization rates are a
more flexible option: industries are permitted to meet the recycling
targets at any point of their operation or even contract recycling out
in exchange for tradeable credits. Opponents to both of these methods
point to the large increase in reporting requirements they impose, and
claim that they rob industry of necessary flexibility.
Governments have used their own purchasing power to increase recycling
demand through what are called "procurement policies." These policies
are either "set-asides," which reserve a certain amount of spending
solely towards recycled products, or "price preference" programs which
provide a larger budget when recycled items are purchased. Additional
regulations can target specific cases: in the United States, for
example, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates the purchase of
oil, paper, tires and building insulation from recycled or re-refined
sources whenever possible.
The final government regulation towards increased demand is recycled
product labeling. When producers are required to label their packaging
with amount of recycled material in the product (including the
packaging), consumers are better able to make educated choices.
Consumers with sufficient buying power can then choose more
environmentally conscious options, prompt producers to increase the
amount of recycled material in their products, and indirectly increase
demand. Standardized recycling labeling can also have a positive
effect on supply of recyclates if the labeling includes information on
how and where the product can be recycled.
Glass recovered by crushing only one kind of beer bottle
Recyclate is a raw material that is sent to, and processed in a waste
recycling plant or materials recovery facility which will be used to
form new products. The material is collected in various methods
and delivered to a facility where it undergoes re-manufacturing so
that it can be used in the production of new materials or products.
For example, plastic bottles that are collected can be re-used and
made into plastic pellets, a new product.
Quality of recyclate
The quality of recyclates is recognized as one of the principal
challenges that needs to be addressed for the success of a long-term
vision of a green economy and achieving zero waste. Recyclate quality
is generally referring to how much of the raw material is made up of
target material compared to the amount of non-target material and
other non-recyclable material. Only target material is likely to
be recycled, so a higher amount of non-target and non-recyclable
material will reduce the quantity of recycling product. A high
proportion of non-target and non-recyclable material can make it more
difficult for re-processors to achieve "high-quality" recycling. If
the recyclate is of poor quality, it is more likely to end up being
down-cycled or, in more extreme cases, sent to other recovery options
or landfilled. For example, to facilitate the re-manufacturing of
clear glass products there are tight restrictions for colored glass
going into the re-melt process.
The quality of recyclate not only supports high-quality recycling, but
it can also deliver significant environmental benefits by reducing,
reusing and keeping products out of landfills. High-quality
recycling can help support growth in the economy by maximizing the
economic value of the waste material collected. Higher income
levels from the sale of quality recyclates can return value which can
be significant to local governments, households, and businesses.
Pursuing high-quality recycling can also provide consumer and business
confidence in the waste and resource management sector and may
encourage investment in that sector.
There are many actions along the recycling supply chain that can
influence and affect the material quality of recyclate. It begins
with the waste producers who place non-target and non-recyclable
wastes in recycling collection. This can affect the quality of final
recyclate streams or require further efforts to discard those
materials at later stages in the recycling process. The different
collection systems can result in different levels of contamination.
Depending on which materials are collected together, extra effort is
required to sort this material back into separate streams and can
significantly reduce the quality of the final product.
Transportation and the compaction of materials can make it more
difficult to separate material back into separate waste streams.
Sorting facilities are not one hundred per cent effective in
separating materials, despite improvements in technology and quality
recyclate which can see a loss in recyclate quality. The storage
of materials outside where the product can become wet can cause
problems for re-processors. Reprocessing facilities may require
further sorting steps to further reduce the amount of non-target and
non-recyclable material. Each action along the recycling path
plays a part in the quality of recyclate.
Quality recyclate action plan (Scotland)
The Recyclate Quality Action Plan of Scotland sets out a number of
proposed actions that the
Scottish Government would like to take
forward in order to drive up the quality of the materials being
collected for recycling and sorted at materials recovery facilities
before being exported or sold on to the reprocessing market.
The plan's objectives are to:
Drive up the quality of recyclate.
Deliver greater transparency about the quality of recyclate.
Provide help to those contracting with materials recycling facilities
to identify what is required of them
Ensure compliance with the
Waste (Scotland) regulations 2012.
Stimulate a household market for quality recyclate.
Address and reduce issues surrounding the
Waste Shipment Regulations.
The plan focuses on three key areas, with fourteen actions which were
identified to increase the quality of materials collected, sorted and
presented to the processing market in Scotland.
The three areas of focus are:
Collection systems and input contamination
Sorting facilities – material sampling and transparency
Material quality benchmarking and standards
Recycling consumer waste
A three-sided bin at a railway station in Germany, intended to
separate paper (left) and plastic wrappings (right) from other waste
A number of different systems have been implemented to collect
recyclates from the general waste stream. These systems lie along the
spectrum of trade-off between public convenience and government ease
and expense. The three main categories of collection are "drop-off
centers," "buy-back centers", and "curbside collection."
Main article: Curbside collection
A recycling truck collecting the contents of a recycling bin in
Curbside collection encompasses many subtly different systems, which
differ mostly on where in the process the recyclates are sorted and
cleaned. The main categories are mixed waste collection, commingled
recyclables, and source separation. A waste collection vehicle
generally picks up the waste.
At one end of the spectrum is mixed waste collection, in which all
recyclates are collected mixed in with the rest of the waste, and the
desired material is then sorted out and cleaned at a central sorting
facility. This results in a large amount of recyclable waste, paper
especially, being too soiled to reprocess, but has advantages as well:
the city need not pay for a separate collection of recyclates and no
public education is needed. Any changes to which materials are
recyclable is easy to accommodate as all sorting happens in a central
In a commingled or single-stream system, all recyclables for
collection are mixed but kept separate from other waste. This greatly
reduces the need for post-collection cleaning but does require public
education on what materials are recyclable.
Source separation is the other extreme, where each material is cleaned
and sorted prior to collection. This method requires the least
post-collection sorting and produces the purest recyclates, but incurs
additional operating costs for collection of each separate material.
An extensive public education program is also required, which must be
successful if recyclate contamination is to be avoided.
Source separation used to be the preferred method due to the high
sorting costs incurred by commingled (mixed waste) collection.
However, advances in sorting technology have lowered this overhead
substantially. Many areas which had developed source separation
programs have since switched to what's called co-mingled
Buy-back centers differ in that the cleaned recyclates are purchased,
thus providing a clear incentive for use and creating a stable supply.
The post-processed material can then be sold. If this is profitable,
this conserves the emission of greenhouse gases; if unprofitable, it
increases the emission of greenhouse gasses. Government subsidies are
necessary to make buy-back centres a viable enterprise. In 1993,
according to the U.S. National
Recycling Association, it
costs on average US$50 to process a ton of material, which can be
resold for US$30.
In the US, the value per ton of mixed recyclables was US$180 in 2011,
US$80 in 2015, and $US$100 in 2017.
In 2017, glass is essentially valueless, because of the low cost of
sand, its major component; low oil costs thwarts plastic
Napa, California was reimbursed about 20% of its costs in
Drop-off centers require the waste producer to carry the recyclates to
a central location, either an installed or mobile collection station
or the reprocessing plant itself. They are the easiest type of
collection to establish but suffer from low and unpredictable
For some waste materials such as plastic, recent technical devices
called recyclebots enable a form of distributed recycling.
Preliminary life-cycle analysis (LCA) indicates that such distributed
HDPE to make filament of
3-D printers in rural regions is
energetically favorable to either using virgin resin or conventional
recycling processes because of reductions in transportation
Recycling sorting facility and processes
Once commingled recyclates are collected and delivered to a central
collection facility, the different types of materials must be sorted.
This is done in a series of stages, many of which involve automated
processes such that a truckload of material can be fully sorted in
less than an hour. Some plants can now sort the materials
automatically, known as single-stream recycling. In plants, a variety
of materials is sorted such as paper, different types of plastics,
glass, metals, food scraps, and most types of batteries. A 30
percent increase in recycling rates has been seen in the areas where
these plants exist.
Initially, the commingled recyclates are removed from the collection
vehicle and placed on a conveyor belt spread out in a single layer.
Large pieces of corrugated fiberboard and plastic bags are removed by
hand at this stage, as they can cause later machinery to jam.
Early sorting of recyclable materials: glass and plastic bottles in
Next, automated machinery such as disk screens and air classifiers
separate the recyclates by weight, splitting lighter paper and plastic
from heavier glass and metal. Cardboard is removed from the mixed
paper and the most common types of plastic, PET (#1) and
are collected. This separation is usually done by hand but has become
automated in some sorting centers: a spectroscopic scanner is used to
differentiate between different types of paper and plastic based on
the absorbed wavelengths, and subsequently divert each material into
the proper collection channel.
Strong magnets are used to separate out ferrous metals, such as iron,
steel, and tin cans. Non-ferrous metals are ejected by magnetic eddy
currents in which a rotating magnetic field induces an electric
current around the aluminum cans, which in turn creates a magnetic
eddy current inside the cans. This magnetic eddy current is repulsed
by a large magnetic field, and the cans are ejected from the rest of
the recyclate stream.
A recycling point in New Byth, Scotland, with separate containers for
paper, plastics, and differently colored glass
Finally, glass is sorted according to its color: brown, amber, green,
or clear. It may either be sorted by hand, or via an automated
machine that uses colored filters to detect different colors. Glass
fragments smaller than 10 millimetres (0.39 in) across cannot be
sorted automatically, and are mixed together as "glass fines."
This process of recycling as well as reusing the recycled material has
proven advantageous because it reduces amount of waste sent to
landfills, conserves natural resources, saves energy, reduces
greenhouse gas emissions, and helps create new jobs. Recycled
materials can also be converted into new products that can be consumed
again, such as paper, plastic, and glass.
The City and County of San Francisco's Department of the Environment
is attempting to achieve a citywide goal of generating zero waste by
2020. San Francisco's refuse hauler, Recology, operates an
effective recyclables sorting facility in San Francisco, which helped
San Francisco reach a record-breaking diversion rate of 80%.
Food packaging should no longer contain any organic matter (organic
matter, if any, needs to be placed in a biodegradable waste bin or be
buried in a garden). Since no trace of biodegradable material is
best kept in the packaging before placing it in a trash bag, some
packaging also needs to be rinsed.
Recycling industrial waste
Mounds of shredded rubber tires are ready for processing
Although many government programs are concentrated on recycling at
home, 64% of waste in the United Kingdom is generated by industry.
The focus of many recycling programs done by industry is the
cost–effectiveness of recycling. The ubiquitous nature of cardboard
packaging makes cardboard a commonly recycled waste product by
companies that deal heavily in packaged goods, like retail stores,
warehouses, and distributors of goods. Other industries deal in niche
or specialized products, depending on the nature of the waste
materials that are present.
The glass, lumber, wood pulp and paper manufacturers all deal directly
in commonly recycled materials; however, old rubber tires may be
collected and recycled by independent tire dealers for a profit.
Levels of metals recycling are generally low. In 2010, the
International Resource Panel, hosted by the United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP) published reports on metal stocks that exist within
society and their recycling rates. The Panel reported that the
increase in the use of metals during the 20th and into the 21st
century has led to a substantial shift in metal stocks from below
ground to use in applications within society above ground. For
example, the in-use stock of copper in the USA grew from 73 to
238 kg per capita between 1932 and 1999.
The report authors observed that, as metals are inherently recyclable,
the metal stocks in society can serve as huge mines above ground (the
term "urban mining" has been coined with this idea in mind).
However, they found that the recycling rates of many metals are very
low. The report warned that the recycling rates of some rare metals
used in applications such as mobile phones, battery packs for hybrid
cars and fuel cells, are so low that unless future end-of-life
recycling rates are dramatically stepped up these critical metals will
become unavailable for use in modern technology.
The military recycles some metals. The U.S. Navy's Ship Disposal
Program uses ship breaking to reclaim the steel of old vessels. Ships
may also be sunk to create an artificial reef.
Uranium is a very dense
metal that has qualities superior to lead and titanium for many
military and industrial uses. The uranium left over from processing it
into nuclear weapons and fuel for nuclear reactors is called depleted
uranium, and it is used by all branches of the U.S. military use for
armour-piercing shells and shielding.
The construction industry may recycle concrete and old road surface
pavement, selling their waste materials for profit.
Some industries, like the renewable energy industry and solar
photovoltaic technology, in particular, are being proactive in setting
up recycling policies even before there is considerable volume to
their waste streams, anticipating future demand during their rapid
Recycling of plastics is more difficult, as most programs are not able
to reach the necessary level of quality.
results in downcycling of the material, which means only products of
lower quality standard can be made with the recycled material. A new
approach which allows an equal level of quality is the Vinyloop
process. It was used after the
London Olympics 2012
London Olympics 2012 to fulfill the PVC
Main article: Computer recycling
Computer processors retrieved from waste stream
E-waste is a growing problem, accounting for 20–50 million metric
tons of global waste per year according to the EPA. It is also the
fastest growing waste stream in the EU. Many recyclers do not
recycle e-waste responsibly. After the cargo barge Khian Sea dumped
14,000 metric tons of toxic ash in Haiti, the
Basel Convention was
formed to stem the flow of hazardous substances into poorer countries.
They created the e-Stewards certification to ensure that recyclers are
held to the highest standards for environmental responsibility and to
help consumers identify responsible recyclers. This works alongside
other prominent legislation, such as the
Waste Electrical and
Electronic Equipment Directive of the EU the
United States National
Recycling Act, to prevent poisonous chemicals from entering
waterways and the atmosphere.
In the recycling process, television sets, monitors, cell phones, and
computers are typically tested for reuse and repaired. If broken, they
may be disassembled for parts still having high value if labor is
cheap enough. Other e-waste is shredded to pieces roughly 10
centimetres (3.9 in) in size, and manually checked to separate
out toxic batteries and capacitors which contain poisonous metals. The
remaining pieces are further shredded to 10 millimetres (0.39 in)
particles and passed under a magnet to remove ferrous metals. An eddy
current ejects non-ferrous metals, which are sorted by density either
by a centrifuge or vibrating plates. Precious metals can be dissolved
in acid, sorted, and smelted into ingots. The remaining glass and
plastic fractions are separated by density and sold to re-processors.
Television sets and monitors must be manually disassembled to remove
lead from CRTs or the mercury backlight from LCDs.
Main article: Plastic recycling
A container for recycling used plastic spoons into material for 3D
Plastic recycling is the process of recovering scrap or waste plastic
and reprocessing the material into useful products, sometimes
completely different in form from their original state. For instance,
this could mean melting down soft drink bottles and then casting them
as plastic chairs and tables.
Some plastics are remelted to form new plastic objects; for example,
PET water bottles can be converted into polyester destined for
clothing. A disadvantage of this type of recycling is that the
molecular weight of the polymer can change further and the levels of
unwanted substances in the plastic can increase with each remelt.
For some polymers, it is possible to convert them back into monomers,
for example, PET can be treated with an alcohol and a catalyst to form
a dialkyl terephthalate. The terephthalate diester can be used with
ethylene glycol to form a new polyester polymer, thus making it
possible to use the pure polymer again.
Waste plastic pyrolysis to fuel oil
Another process involves conversion of assorted polymers into
petroleum by a much less precise thermal depolymerization process.
Such a process would be able to accept almost any polymer or mix of
polymers, including thermoset materials such as vulcanized rubber
tires and the biopolymers in feathers and other agricultural waste.
Like natural petroleum, the chemicals produced can be used as fuels or
as feedstock. A RESEM Technology plant of this type in Carthage,
Missouri, USA, uses turkey waste as input material. Gasification is a
similar process but is not technically recycling since polymers are
not likely to become the result. Plastic
Pyrolysis can convert
petroleum based waste streams such as plastics into quality fuels,
carbons. Given below is the list of suitable plastic raw materials for
Mixed plastic (HDPE, LDPE, PE, PP, Nylon, Teflon, PS, ABS, FRP, etc.)
Mixed waste plastic from waste paper mill
Loops for production-waste, product and material recycling
The (ideal) recycling process can be differentiated into three loops,
one for manufacture (production-waste recycling) and two for disposal
of the product (product and material recycling).
The product's manufacturing phase, which consists of material
processing and fabrication, forms the production-waste recycling loop.
Industrial waste materials are fed back into, and reused in, the same
The product's disposal process requires two recycling loops: product
recycling and material recycling. The product or product parts are
reused in the product recycling phase. This happens in one of two
ways: the product is used retaining the product functionality
("reuse") or the product continues to be used but with altered
functionality ("further use"). The product design is unmodified,
or only slightly modified, in both scenarios.
Product disassembly requires material recycling where product
materials are recovered and recycled. Ideally, the materials are
processed so they can flow back into the production process.
Recycling codes on products
In order to meet recyclers' needs while providing manufacturers a
consistent, uniform system, a coding system was developed. The
recycling code for plastics was introduced in 1988 by the plastics
industry through the Society of the Plastics Industry. Because
municipal recycling programs traditionally have targeted
packaging—primarily bottles and containers—the resin coding system
offered a means of identifying the resin content of bottles and
containers commonly found in the residential waste stream.
Plastic products are printed with numbers 1–7 depending on the type
of resin. Type 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) is commonly found in
soft drink and water bottles. Type 2 (high-density polyethylene) is
found in most hard plastics such as milk jugs, laundry detergent
bottles, and some dishware. Type 3 (polyvinyl chloride) includes items
such as shampoo bottles, shower curtains, hula hoops, credit cards,
wire jacketing, medical equipment, siding, and piping. Type 4
(low-density polyethylene) is found in shopping bags, squeezable
bottles, tote bags, clothing, furniture, and carpet. Type 5 is
polypropylene and makes up syrup bottles, straws, Tupperware, and some
automotive parts. Type 6 is polystyrene and makes up meat trays, egg
cartons, clamshell containers, and compact disc cases. Type 7 includes
all other plastics such as bulletproof materials, 3- and 5-gallon
water bottles, and sunglasses. Having a recycling code or the
chasing arrows logo on a material is not an automatic indicator that a
material is recyclable but rather an explanation of what the material
is. Types 1 and 2 are the most commonly recycled.
Critics[who?] dispute the net economic and environmental benefits of
recycling over its costs, and suggest that proponents of recycling
often make matters worse and suffer from confirmation bias.
Specifically, critics argue that the costs and energy used in
collection and transportation detract from (and outweigh) the costs
and energy saved in the production process; also that the jobs
produced by the recycling industry can be a poor trade for the jobs
lost in logging, mining, and other industries associated with
production; and that materials such as paper pulp can only be recycled
a few times before material degradation prevents further
Recycling Association (NWRA), reported in May
2015, that recycling and waste made a $6.7 billion economic impact in
Ohio, U.S., and employed 14,000 people.
Environmental effects of recycling
Air pollution savings
There is some debate over whether recycling is economically efficient.
According to a
Natural Resources Defense Council
Natural Resources Defense Council study, waste
collection and landfill disposal creates less than one job per 1,000
tons of waste material managed; in contrast, the collection,
processing, and manufacturing of recycled materials creates 6-13 or
more jobs per 1,000 tons. However, the cost effectiveness of
creating the additional jobs remains unproven. According to the U.S.
Recycling Economic Informational Study, there are over 50,000
recycling establishments that have created over a million jobs in the
Two years after New York City declared that implementing recycling
programs would be "a drain on the city," New York City leaders
realized that an efficient recycling system could save the city over
$20 million. Municipalities often see fiscal benefits from
implementing recycling programs, largely due to the reduced landfill
costs. A study conducted by the Technical University of Denmark
according to the Economist found that in 83 percent of cases,
recycling is the most efficient method to dispose of household
waste. However, a 2004 assessment by the Danish Environmental
Assessment Institute concluded that incineration was the most
effective method for disposing of drink containers, even aluminium
Fiscal efficiency is separate from economic efficiency. Economic
analysis of recycling does not include what economists call
externalities, which are unpriced costs and benefits that accrue to
individuals outside of private transactions. Examples include:
decreased air pollution and greenhouse gases from incineration,
reduced hazardous waste leaching from landfills, reduced energy
consumption, and reduced waste and resource consumption, which leads
to a reduction in environmentally damaging mining and timber activity.
About 4,000 minerals are known, of these only a few hundred minerals
in the world are relatively common. Known reserves of phosphorus
will be exhausted within the next 100 years at current rates of
usage. Without mechanisms such as taxes or subsidies to
internalize externalities, businesses may ignore them despite the
costs imposed on society. To make such nonfiscal
benefits economically relevant, advocates have pushed for legislative
action to increase the demand for recycled materials. The United
States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded in favor of
recycling, saying that recycling efforts reduced the country's carbon
emissions by a net 49 million metric tonnes in 2005. In the United
Waste and Resources Action Programme stated that Great
Britain's recycling efforts reduce CO2 emissions by 10–15 million
tonnes a year.
Recycling is more efficient in densely populated
areas, as there are economies of scale involved.
Wrecked automobiles gathered for smelting
Certain requirements must be met for recycling to be economically
feasible and environmentally effective. These include an adequate
source of recyclates, a system to extract those recyclates from the
waste stream, a nearby factory capable of reprocessing the recyclates,
and a potential demand for the recycled products. These last two
requirements are often overlooked—without both an industrial market
for production using the collected materials and a consumer market for
the manufactured goods, recycling is incomplete and in fact only
Julian Simon remarked "There are three ways
society can organize waste disposal: (a) commanding, (b) guiding by
tax and subsidy, and (c) leaving it to the individual and the market".
These principles appear to divide economic thinkers today.
Frank Ackerman favours a high level of government intervention to
provide recycling services. He believes that recycling's benefit
cannot be effectively quantified by traditional laissez-faire
Allen Hershkowitz supports intervention, saying that it is
a public service equal to education and policing. He argues that
manufacturers should shoulder more of the burden of waste
Paul Calcott and Margaret Walls advocate the second option. A deposit
refund scheme and a small refuse charge would encourage recycling but
not at the expense of fly-tipping. Thomas C. Kinnaman concludes that a
landfill tax would force consumers, companies and councils to recycle
Most free-market thinkers detest subsidy and intervention because they
waste resources. Terry Anderson and Donald Leal think that all
recycling programmes should be privately operated, and therefore would
only operate if the money saved by recycling exceeds its costs. Daniel
K. Benjamin argues that it wastes people's resources and lowers the
wealth of a population.
Trade in recyclates
Certain countries trade in unprocessed recyclates. Some have
complained that the ultimate fate of recyclates sold to another
country is unknown and they may end up in landfills instead of being
reprocessed. According to one report, in America, 50–80 percent of
computers destined for recycling are actually not recycled.
There are reports of illegal-waste imports to China being dismantled
and recycled solely for monetary gain, without consideration for
workers' health or environmental damage. Although the Chinese
government has banned these practices, it has not been able to
eradicate them. In 2008, the prices of recyclable waste plummeted
before rebounding in 2009. Cardboard averaged about £53/tonne from
2004–2008, dropped to £19/tonne, and then went up to £59/tonne in
May 2009. PET plastic averaged about £156/tonne, dropped to
£75/tonne and then moved up to £195/tonne in May 2009.
Certain regions have difficulty using or exporting as much of a
material as they recycle. This problem is most prevalent with glass:
both Britain and the U.S. import large quantities of wine bottled in
green glass. Though much of this glass is sent to be recycled, outside
American Midwest there is not enough wine production to use all of
the reprocessed material. The extra must be downcycled into building
materials or re-inserted into the regular waste stream.
Similarly, the northwestern
United States has difficulty finding
markets for recycled newspaper, given the large number of pulp mills
in the region as well as the proximity to Asian markets. In other
areas of the U.S., however, demand for used newsprint has seen wide
In some U.S. states, a program called
RecycleBank pays people to
recycle, receiving money from local municipalities for the reduction
in landfill space which must be purchased. It uses a single stream
process in which all material is automatically sorted.
Criticisms and responses
Much of the difficulty inherent in recycling comes from the fact that
most products are not designed with recycling in mind. The concept of
sustainable design aims to solve this problem, and was laid out in the
book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by architect
William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. They suggest that
every product (and all packaging they require) should have a complete
"closed-loop" cycle mapped out for each component—a way in which
every component will either return to the natural ecosystem through
biodegradation or be recycled indefinitely.
Complete recycling is impossible from a practical standpoint. In
summary, substitution and recycling strategies only delay the
depletion of non-renewable stocks and therefore may buy time in the
transition to true or strong sustainability, which ultimately is only
guaranteed in an economy based on renewable resources.:21
— M. H. Huesemann, 2003
While recycling diverts waste from entering directly into landfill
sites, current recycling misses the dissipative components. Complete
recycling is impracticable as highly dispersed wastes become so
diluted that the energy needed for their recovery becomes increasingly
excessive. "For example, how will it ever be possible to recycle the
numerous chlorinated organic hydrocarbons that have bioaccumulated in
animal and human tissues across the globe, the copper dispersed in
fungicides, the lead in widely applied paints, or the zinc oxides
present in the finely dispersed rubber powder that is abraded from
As with environmental economics, care must be taken to ensure a
complete view of the costs and benefits involved. For example,
paperboard packaging for food products is more easily recycled than
most plastic, but is heavier to ship and may result in more waste from
Energy and material flows
Bales of crushed steel ready for transport to the smelter
The amount of energy saved through recycling depends upon the material
being recycled and the type of energy accounting that is used. Correct
accounting for this saved energy can be accomplished with life-cycle
analysis using real energy values. In addition, exergy, which is a
measure of useful energy can be used. In general, it takes far less
energy to produce a unit mass of recycled materials than it does to
make the same mass of virgin materials.
Some scholars use emergy (spelled with an m) analysis, for example,
budgets for the amount of energy of one kind (exergy) that is required
to make or transform things into another kind of product or service.
Emergy calculations take into account economics which can alter pure
physics based results. Using emergy life-cycle analysis researchers
have concluded that materials with large refining costs have the
greatest potential for high recycle benefits. Moreover, the highest
emergy efficiency accrues from systems geared toward material
recycling, where materials are engineered to recycle back into their
original form and purpose, followed by adaptive reuse systems where
the materials are recycled into a different kind of product, and then
by-product reuse systems where parts of the products are used to make
an entirely different product.
Energy Information Administration (EIA) states on its website that
"a paper mill uses 40 percent less energy to make paper from recycled
paper than it does to make paper from fresh lumber." Some critics
argue that it takes more energy to produce recycled products than it
does to dispose of them in traditional landfill methods, since the
curbside collection of recyclables often requires a second waste
truck. However, recycling proponents point out that a second timber or
logging truck is eliminated when paper is collected for recycling, so
the net energy consumption is the same. An
Emergy life-cycle analysis
on recycling revealed that fly ash, aluminum, recycled concrete
aggregate, recycled plastic, and steel yield higher efficiency ratios,
whereas the recycling of lumber generates the lowest recycle benefit
ratio. Hence, the specific nature of the recycling process, the
methods used to analyse the process, and the products involved affect
the energy savings budgets.
It is difficult to determine the amount of energy consumed or produced
in waste disposal processes in broader ecological terms, where causal
relations dissipate into complex networks of material and energy flow.
For example, "cities do not follow all the strategies of ecosystem
development. Biogeochemical paths become fairly straight relative to
wild ecosystems, with very reduced recycling, resulting in large flows
of waste and low total energy efficiencies. By contrast, in wild
ecosystems, one population's wastes are another population's
resources, and succession results in efficient exploitation of
available resources. However, even modernized cities may still be in
the earliest stages of a succession that may take centuries or
millennia to complete.":720 How much energy is used in recycling
also depends on the type of material being recycled and the process
used to do so. Aluminium is generally agreed to use far less energy
when recycled rather than being produced from scratch. The EPA states
that "recycling aluminum cans, for example, saves 95 percent of the
energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin
source, bauxite." In 2009, more than half of all aluminium
cans produced came from recycled aluminium.
Every year, millions of tons of materials are being exploited from the
earth's crust, and processed into consumer and capital goods. After
decades to centuries, most of these materials are "lost". With the
exception of some pieces of art or religious relics, they are no
longer engaged in the consumption process. Where are they? Recycling
is only an intermediate solution for such materials, although it does
prolong the residence time in the anthroposphere. For thermodynamic
reasons, however, recycling cannot prevent the final need for an
— P. H. Brunner
Steven Landsburg has suggested that the sole benefit of
reducing landfill space is trumped by the energy needed and resulting
pollution from the recycling process. Others, however, have
calculated through life-cycle assessment that producing recycled paper
uses less energy and water than harvesting, pulping, processing, and
transporting virgin trees. When less recycled paper is used,
additional energy is needed to create and maintain farmed forests
until these forests are as self-sustainable as virgin forests.
Other studies have shown that recycling in itself is inefficient to
perform the "decoupling" of economic development from the depletion of
non-renewable raw materials that is necessary for sustainable
development. The international transportation or recycle material
flows through "... different trade networks of the three
countries result in different flows, decay rates, and potential
recycling returns.":1 As global consumption of a natural resources
grows, its depletion is inevitable. The best recycling can do is to
delay, complete closure of material loops to achieve 100 percent
recycling of nonrenewables is impossible as micro-trace materials
dissipate into the environment causing severe damage to the planet's
ecosystems. Historically, this was identified as the
metabolic rift by Karl Marx, who identified the unequal exchange rate
between energy and nutrients flowing from rural areas to feed urban
cities that create effluent wastes degrading the planet's ecological
capital, such as loss in soil nutrient production. Energy
conservation also leads to what is known as Jevon's paradox, where
improvements in energy efficiency lowers the cost of production and
leads to a rebound effect where rates of consumption and economic
A shop in New York only sells items recycled from demolished buildings
The amount of money actually saved through recycling depends on the
efficiency of the recycling program used to do it. The Institute for
Local Self-Reliance argues that the cost of recycling depends on
various factors, such as landfill fees and the amount of disposal that
the community recycles. It states that communities begin to save money
when they treat recycling as a replacement for their traditional waste
system rather than an add-on to it and by "redesigning their
collection schedules and/or trucks."
In some cases, the cost of recyclable materials also exceeds the cost
of raw materials. Virgin plastic resin costs 40 percent less than
recycled resin. Additionally, a
United States Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) study that tracked the price of clear glass
from 15 July – 2 August 1991, found that the average cost per ton
ranged from $40 to $60 while a
USGS report shows that the cost
per ton of raw silica sand from years 1993 to 1997 fell between $17.33
Comparing the market cost of recyclable material with the cost of new
raw materials ignores economic externalities—the costs that are
currently not counted by the market. Creating a new piece of plastic,
for instance, may cause more pollution and be less sustainable than
recycling a similar piece of plastic, but these factors will not be
counted in market cost. A life cycle assessment can be used to
determine the levels of externalities and decide whether the recycling
may be worthwhile despite unfavorable market costs. Alternatively,
legal means (such as a carbon tax) can be used to bring externalities
into the market, so that the market cost of the material becomes close
to the true cost.
Some people in
Brazil earn their living by collecting and sorting
garbage and selling them for recycling
The recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment in India
and China generates a significant amount of pollution. Informal
recycling in an underground economy of these countries has generated
an environmental and health disaster. High levels of lead (Pb),
polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated dioxins and
furans, as well as polybrominated dioxins and furans (PCDD/Fs and
PBDD/Fs) concentrated in the air, bottom ash, dust, soil, water, and
sediments in areas surrounding recycling sites.
Economist Steven Landsburg, author of a paper entitled "Why I Am Not
an Environmentalist," claimed that paper recycling actually
reduces tree populations. He argues that because paper companies have
incentives to replenish their forests, large demands for paper lead to
large forests while reduced demand for paper leads to fewer "farmed"
When foresting companies cut down trees, more are planted in their
place; however, such "farmed" forests are inferior to virgin forests
in several ways. Farmed forests are not able to fix the soil as
quickly as virgin forests, causing widespread soil erosion and often
requiring large amounts of fertilizer to maintain while containing
little tree and wild-life biodiversity compared to virgin
forests. Also, the new trees planted are not as big as the trees
that were cut down, and the argument that there will be "more trees"
is not compelling to forestry advocates when they are counting
In particular, wood from tropical rainforests is rarely harvested for
paper because of their heterogeneity. According to the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, the
overwhelming direct cause of deforestation is subsistence farming (48%
of deforestation) and commercial agriculture (32%), which is linked to
food, not paper production.
Possible income loss and social costs
In some countries, recycling is performed by the entrepreneurial poor
such as the karung guni, zabbaleen, the rag-and-bone man, waste
picker, and junk man. With the creation of large recycling
organizations that may be profitable, either by law or economies of
scale, the poor are more likely to be driven out of the
recycling and the remanufacturing market. To compensate for this loss
of income, a society may need to create additional forms of societal
programs to help support the poor. Like the parable of the broken
window, there is a net loss to the poor and possibly the whole of a
society to make recycling artificially profitable e.g. through the
law. However, in
Brazil and Argentina, waste pickers/informal
recyclers work alongside the authorities, in fully or semi-funded
cooperatives, allowing informal recycling to be legitimized as a paid
public sector job.
Because the social support of a country is likely to be less than the
loss of income to the poor undertaking recycling, there is a greater
chance the poor will come in conflict with the large recycling
organizations. This means fewer people can decide if certain
waste is more economically reusable in its current form rather than
being reprocessed. Contrasted to the recycling poor, the efficiency of
their recycling may actually be higher for some materials because
individuals have greater control over what is considered "waste."
One labor-intensive underused waste is electronic and computer waste.
Because this waste may still be functional and wanted mostly by those
on lower incomes, who may sell or use it at a greater efficiency than
Some recycling advocates believe that laissez-faire individual-based
recycling does not cover all of society's recycling needs. Thus, it
does not negate the need for an organized recycling program.
Local government can consider the activities of the recycling poor as
contributing to property blight.
Public participation rates
Changes that have been demonstrated to increase recycling rates
Pay as you throw
Pay as you throw fees for trash
"Between 1960 and 2000, the world production of plastic resins
increased 25-fold, while recovery of the material remained below 5
percent.":131 Many studies have addressed recycling behaviour and
strategies to encourage community involvement in recycling programmes.
It has been argued that recycling behaviour is not natural
because it requires a focus and appreciation for long-term planning,
whereas humans have evolved to be sensitive to short-term survival
goals; and that to overcome this innate predisposition, the best
solution would be to use social pressure to compel participation in
recycling programmes. However, recent studies have concluded that
social pressure is unviable in this context. One reason for this
is that social pressure functions well in small group sizes of 50 to
150 individuals (common to nomadic hunter–gatherer peoples) but not
in communities numbering in the millions, as we see today. Another
reason is that individual recycling does not take place in the public
In a study done by social psychologist Shawn Burn, it was found
that personal contact with individuals within a neighborhood is the
most effective way to increase recycling within a community. In his
study, he had 10 block leaders talk to their neighbors and persuade
them to recycle. A comparison group was sent fliers promoting
recycling. It was found that the neighbors that were personally
contacted by their block leaders recycled much more than the group
without personal contact. As a result of this study, Shawn Burn
believes that personal contact within a small group of people is an
important factor in encouraging recycling. Another study done by
Stuart Oskamp examines the effect of neighbors and friends on
recycling. It was found in his studies that people who had friends and
neighbors that recycled were much more likely to also recycle than
those who didn't have friends and neighbors that recycled.
Many schools have created recycling awareness clubs in order to give
young students an insight on recycling. These schools believe that the
clubs actually encourage students to not only recycle at school but at
home as well.
See also: Category:
Waste management journals
Environment and Behavior
International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics
Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Journal of Environmental Psychology
Journal of Environmental Systems
Journal of Socio-Economics
Journal of Urban Economics
Psychology and Marketing
Recycling: North America's
Resources, Conservation and Recycling
Waste Management & Research
Journal of Industrial Ecology
2000s commodities boom
Bureau of International Recycling
Index of recycling articles
List of waste management acronyms
USPS Post Office Box Lobby
Sustainable development portal
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