Recycling is any process that involves the recovery and reuse of materials that were once considered trash. Recycling can be as simple as reusing something—such as a coat or computer—by passing it on for someone else to use. Or, it can be as involved as reprocessing materials in metals, plastics, paper, or glass to make new products.

An Old Idea Is Rediscovered

There is nothing new about recycling. People have found ways to reuse pottery, gold, silver, and bronze for thousands of years. Old swords were melted and reshaped to use as plows. Gold and silver jewelry were melted down and reshaped into other forms.

As recently as one hundred years ago, traveling peddlers in the United States and Europe collected rags, bones, and scrap metal waste from household garbage and sold them to manufacturers to make into new products.

During the early twentieth century, Americans relied less and less on recycling. By the 1950s the United States was labeled a “throw-away economy” because Americans were consuming increasing amounts of goods that ended up in garbage landfills.

Recycling was revived in many Western countries back in the 1960s and 1970s as the public became interested in conservation and looked for ways to reduce damage to the environment. In the United States, the first Earth Day in 1970 is often viewed as the official beginning of the modern recycling movement. On that day, hundreds of new recycling centers opened across the country.

The recycling movement caught on in many other Western countries during the next thirty years. Today, Germany recycles 30 percent of all of its trash. Japan recycles over 50 percent of its trash, half of all wastepaper and glass bottles, and more than 60 percent of its drink and food cans.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the United States recycling efforts are behind many European nations. Americans generate twice the amount of trash as Germans, but recycle less. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States recycled 28 percent of its waste in 2002.

States vary widely in their recycling programs. Minnesota is the nation’s leader in recycling with a rate of recycling 45 percent of all domestic waste. Montana and Wyoming are at the bottom of the list, recycling less than 5 percent.

Why Recycle?

Recycling is one of the easiest steps anyone can take to reduce the impact of humans on the environment. On average, each American produces approximately 3.5 pounds of garbage per day. That is 1,500 pounds per person each year—or 90,000 pounds in a lifetime. Without recycling, all this trash ends up in landfills.

In the 1970s many people believed that recycling’s greatest benefit was the reduction of the number of landfills because this would reduce the pollution associated with landfills and preserve the land. More recently, researchers have found multiple benefits to recycling.
  1. Recycling saves natural resources. Recycling reduces the demand for new materials from the environment. For example, by recycling paper, fewer trees are needed to produce new paper.
  2. Recycling saves habitats such as rain forests. By reducing the demand for new materials (such as metals that must be mined and refined) from the environment, more land and habitats can be preserved and/or conserved.
  3. Recycling saves energy and reduces emissions. In most cases, it takes less energy to make new products from recycled materials than from virgin raw materials. For example, it takes 95 percent less energy to produce aluminum products from recycled aluminum than from the raw materials of bauxite ore. In general, recycling of materials also produces less pollution than processing raw materials.
  4. Recycling can be economical. Recycling is often less expensive than the combined cost of processing new materials and managing waste disposal.
  5. Recycling reduces the need for new landfills and incinerators. Landfills and incinerators can emit hazards to the environment. When landfills leak, hazardous solvents can contaminate underlying groundwater—water that may be used for agriculture or as drinking water. Landfills and incinerators also emit pollution into the air.
  6. Recycling reduces the improper disposal of trash, such as littering.

Internal and External Recycling

Most people associate recycling with items such as newspapers, magazines, plastics, aluminum, and glass. The recovery, reprocessing, and reuse of materials from used items is called external recycling and requires public participation.

A second type of recycling, internal recycling, is the reuse of waste materials from manufacturing and does not involve the general public. For example, the manufacture/production of copper items results in wasted copper pieces; with internal recycling, these pieces are melted down and recast. Although internal recovery is possible in many industries, it is most common in the metal industry.

Because industrial waste accounts for 98 percent of all waste in the United States, many critics of recycling advocate that more attention should be paid to internal recycling than external recycling.

How External Recycling Works

External recycling involves three basic steps:
  1. Recovery.
    Recovery is the collection of used items that can be recycled. Many cities have drop-off centers or special curbside pickup programs to collect recyclables. Recovery may include sorting and separation of collected materials.
  2. Reprocessing.
    Reprocessing is the conversion of used items into reusable products. For example, glass is melted down and molded into new bottles or paper is reprocessed into new paper. There are three kinds of reprocessing: primary, secondary, and tertiary:
    • Primary recycling is the reprocessing of materials into the same type of product, such the recycling of used glass bottles into new glass bottles.
    • Secondary recycling is the reprocessing of materials into different but similar products, such as processing corrugated cardboard boxes into cereal boxes.
    • Tertiary recycling is the reprocessing of a material into a product that cannot be recycled again—for example, when mixed office paper is reprocessed into bathroom tissue.
  3. Marketing and sale of new items.
    One of the most challenging parts of recycling is creating markets for recycled items. Recycling programs depend on their ability to advertise and sell recycled items at competitive prices. Recycling does not accomplish its goals if recycled items are not used.

What Things Are Recycled?

Recycle bin
Recycle bin

There are four groups of materials that are commonly recycled today.
  1. Standard recyclables. The most commonly recycled materials are aluminum, glass, paper products, steel, and plastics.
  2. Hazardous wastes. Hazardous wastes include items such as antifreeze, motor oil, paint, and batteries. Many cities have special centers to recycle hazardous wastes.
  3. Newer products. Some recycling centers have systems to reprocess newer products such as compact and floppy disks.
  4. Used automobiles and parts.

Aluminum cans are the most widely recycled metal. In 1999 roughly two-thirds of all aluminum cans produced in the United States were recycled. However, not all forms of aluminum are recycled. For example, aluminum foil can be recycled, but not all recycling centers are set up to process it.

Paper recycling is one of this country’s most successful recycling programs. By weight, more paper is recycled each year than all other materials combined. The success of this program is in part due to the successful marketing and sale of recycled paper. Recycled paper is widely used today. Unfortunately, paper can only be recycled a limited number of times, because the paper fibers become too short to continue reprocessing after awhile.

Every part of a newspaper can be recycled—including the newspaper and inserts. Newspaper recycling has been profitable for decades.

Steel cans can be recycled many times. Recycled steel is used for many products such as tin cans.

Plastics are not biodegradable, so the best choice is to recycle them. But plastics are a challenge for recycling centers. There are so many different kinds of plastics that they are difficult for recycling centers to reprocess; in fact, many plastics cannot be recycled. Those plastics that can be recycled can only be recycled a few times. Today, most plastic containers are marked on the bottom with a number in a triangle.

Each number indicates a different kind of plastic. This information allows recycling center staff to identify plastic containers that can or cannot be recycled. Containers marked one or two are the most commonly accepted plastics for recycling.

Hazardous wastes
Hazardous wastes include toxic materials such as paints, solvents, motor oil, antifreeze, herbicides, and batteries. If these materials end up in landfills, the risk exists that they may leak into underlying groundwater which people use for drinking. If incinerated, these materials end up in the air. Many recycling centers have special programs for handling hazardous wastes.

Batteries contain many toxic ingredients, such as lead and cadmium, which can cause serious environmental damage if they are buried in landfills. Many recycling centers direct customers to special dealers who accept used batteries.

Used computers are a challenge for recycling, because they need to be completely disassembled. Recently, a number of companies have started exploring ways to do this efficiently and cost effectively. Recycling of computers is becoming increasingly important as the number of used computers continues to grow. One computer manufacturer, Dell, is now offering to take back old computers for reuse or recycling.

Automobile Recycling
For years, the economic incentives of recycling parts from cars, trucks and other motor vehicles has made automobile recycling a big business. In the United States, each year, more than eleven million vehicles are sent to the junkyard because they have been damaged in accidents or have reached the end of their life.

About three-quarters of the scrapped vehicles are recycled or their parts are resold. Every part from the doors and windows to engines and transmissions are sold; other recyclable metal parts are magnetically separated from other materials. The rest are shredded and buried in landfills.

In the future, a smaller percentage of automobile parts will be recyclable as cars are built with more nonmetal, nonrecyclable materials, unless the automobile makers give serious attention to designing new cars that can be recycled. New cars are being built with more and more high-tech gear and hundreds of different materials that cannot be recovered.

Countries in the European Union have been exploring ways to encourage automobile manufacturers to take greater responsibility for the recycling of “end of life” automobiles. Several countries have already implemented “end of product responsibility” programs. For example, in the Netherlands, car manufacturers are liable to pay a recycling fee when they market a vehicle. The fee is then used to cover possible recycling costs.

Composting - Recycling Organic Materials

Composting is a method of recycling organic materials, such as certain food waste and yard clippings, directly into the soil. Although there are many ways to make composts, the basic idea is to mix yard clippings and food waste into a pile with soil and let it decompose; worms, insects, and other organisms help break it down. Once the material in a compost has broken down, the degraded material can be tilled into the soil and applied as nutrient-rich mulch or material for plants.

Composting offers an opportunity to provide a rich source of nutrients for gardens and to reduce the amount of waste taking up space in landfills. Food and yard wastes currently make up about 30 percent of all wastes going into landfills. The airtight design of landfills slows down the decomposition of organic materials because they need oxygen to decompose. One community that has taken composting seriously is Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Roughly 30 to 50 percent of their waste is organic matter. In 1997 the Nova Scotia Department of Environment passed a law banning the disposal of food, leaf and yard waste from landfills. Through heightened use of composting and other programs, between 1989 and 2000, Nova Scotia’s per capita waste production dropped from 720 kg to 356 kg.

Composting 101
Composting 101