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Beginning in the mid-1960s and growing alongside the environmental movement, recycling became an important aspect of municipal waste management and symbolic of personal actions to help clean up the environment. In earlier times various kinds of recycling took place; they consisted in diverting products from the waste stream before discard. Boy and Girl Scout troops collected old newspapers to raise fundsas those old enough may still remember. Beer, sodas, and milk moved in returnable glass bottles; and because most of these containers finally broke in centralized facilities like bottling plants, the residues were also collected and sold to glass companies. During World War II the government solicited metals and the public set these aside to help the war effort. Finally, automobiles that had reached their final hour were recycled, as they still are, in scrap yardsby far the most massive consumer products, alongside appliances, thus disposed.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "environment" was first used in its current sense in 1956. It did not become a household word until the 1960s. Long before that time, however, recycling was a major industrial activity carried out for economic reasons but under different names: in metals it was the scrap trade, in paper the waste paper trade in two branchesnewsprint gathered by volunteers and cardboard gathered from offices and warehouses; there was also a trade in broken glass ("cullet"), in rags, and in waste oil. Farmers collected restaurant wastes to feed to pigs and recycled the fertilizer value of farm animal wastes as manure. And farm and garden wastes have always been composted. None of these activities has changed and, in fact, are the recipients of wastes today extracted from the municipal waste stream. Certain forms of recycling, however, are relatively new. They include reprocessing of auto tires into rubber, synthetic fuels, or paving materials; the recovery of lead from batteries; plastics recycling; and relatively experimental methods of converting organic wastes to fuel ("bio diesel"). Then, as still today, manufacturing wastes were either immediately recycled if suitable or used for fuel to power production activitiescommon in wood and fiber-using operations.


The movement toward municipal solid waste (MSW) recycling was probably sparked by the introduction of steel cans to package soft drinks and beer in 1953. These containers made a contrast with the returnable bottle, at that time still the dominant mode of beverage packaging; cans did not bear a deposit and were soon littering roads. Keep America Beautiful, a business-sponsored organization, began operation in 1953 as well and attempted to persuade the public not to litter. KAB's most memorable ad image was the Indian chief with the tear in his eyesad over the despoliation of the countryside. The public noticed that packaging was proliferating and turning into a form of marketingand solid waste tonnage was growing more rapidly than population. The "throw-away" society was born. In 1965, the first federal law on solid waste, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, passed Congress coinciding with the introduction of aluminum beverage containers that year: you could crush them in one hand! Amended versions of the act gave recycling more and more prominence until the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 made recycling of MSW a national policy. But RCRA had no mandatory provisions. With the exception of mandatory deposit bills at the state level and local laws mandating separate collection of recyclables from waste, recycling at the national level continues still as an injunction rather than as a regulatory program.


MSW recycling has always required subsidy because scrap prices do not cover the expensive separation of commingled wastes by hand or machine. At the same time, disposal of wastes, whether by the relatively expensive method of incineration or the lower-cost use of burial in landfills, is less expensive than waste separation with a portion recycled and a larger portion disposed ofeven when scrap revenues were factored in. For these reasons MSW recycling has been essentially funded by the public sector and by the population's contribution of labor in separating wastes.

Even when collection, separation, and concentration costs for material components are subsidized, economic conditions cause demand for waste-derived commodities to cycle up and down. This has led to programs to increase the "recycled content" of goods produced. Companies advertise high recycled content as a way of inducing environmentally aware consumers to select their products. Where technically feasible, and the waste markets sold for a lower price than "virgin" raw materials, producers also realized a cost benefit.

Quantitative Trends

Based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), MSW generation was 236.2 million tons in 2003, of which 176.4 million tons (75 percent) was in the form of potentially recoverable materials. Of this subtotal 31.4 percent was recovered for recycling in 2003, most of it in the form of paper (72 percent). The bulk of recovered paper was in the form of old newspapers from households and corrugated cardboard from businesses. About 48 percent of all paper and board, 36 percent of metals, and 19 percent of glass is recovered; the lowest recovery rate is associated with plastics (5 percent), the highest with nonferrous metals, primarily lead batteries (67 percent). The low rate of plastics recovery is explained both by the many types of plastics on the market, the difficulties in sorting them, and the fact that some cannot be remelted.

Of the 60 million tons of organic and miscellaneous wastes not included in figures above, cities recovered about 17 million tons in 2003, 28.2 percent, the great bulk of it in the form of composted yard trimmings. For context, it is worth noting that MSW represents a mere 3 percent of total waste generation in the United States, which, based on EPA's estimates, stood at around 7.84 billion tons. The overwhelming mass of this waste, however, is the form of mine tailings. Industrial waste generation in the major categories like metals, paper, plastics, and glass is very low because production wastes are immediately recycled.

Recycling rates appear to have increased since the beginning of the recycling movement, but reliable numbers are not available. The reason for this is that waste generation by type of content is not routinely determined; in some surveys (such as the one cited above) commercial wastes are included, in some they are left out. Very substantial paperboard recoveries have always been associated with commercial sourceslong before recycling took hold; and in the olden days much newsprint was diverted from MSW when demand for waste paper was high. One source, cited by EPA, Biocycle Magazine, showed recycling increasing from 19 percent in 1992 to 33 percent in 2000, with increases in every year in between. Such data, however, are not based on scientific or census-like measurements and, while no doubt capturing a trend, are more impressionistic.

Energy Recovery

Conversion of MSW to energy, referred to as waste-to-energy, was proposed and demonstrated early in the history of waste recyclingon the model of industrial practice. Waste-to-energy conversion is tracked by the Energy Information Administration. Data provided by EIA indicate steady if somewhat cyclical growth in energy production from solid waste. Generation, expressed in equivalents of British thermal units (BTUs) was 0.354 quadrillion Btu in 1989 and had reached 0.571 quadrillion Btu by 2003. In 2003, the breakdowns of the total were 1) combustion with heat or electric power recovery at 51 percent, 2) capture of methane gases from landfills, 26 percent, and 3) heat recovery from agricultural byproducts, sludges, tires, and other biomass components of waste, 24 percent. In 2003, waste-to-energy represented 9.4 percent of all renewable energy consumptionmore than 3 times the amount provided by solar and wind energy combined.


Commercial recycling, as distinct from industrial recycling, tends to be reported as part MSW which EPA defines as consisting of residential, commercial, and institutional sources. Commercial operations in which bulk packaging is routinely handled have always routinely collected corrugated board for sale to waste paper dealers: it is the highest grade of waste paper available and demand for it tends to be fairly steady. With the rise of environmental consciousness, offices have also participated in occasional programs of collecting waste paper used in business operations. These programs have had a mixed historyintensifying in times of high waste paper prices and slacking off in others. Unlike corrugated collection systems which are strongly institutionalized and integrated into operations, employee programs in which two separate waste cans are used, one for paper, one for all other waste, require constant management attention. Such attention is rarely sustained, with the result that programs fade away until once more reinstituted with a new initiative.

Like cardboard recovery in retail and warehousing operations, industrial recycling is strongly supported by economic motives and is hence both routine and well-managed. In industry recycling takes three basic forms: 1) reuse of production wastes in the course of normal operations, 2) use of scrap as the principal or only raw material input, and 3) the reuse of post-consumption waste products.

In the first case, reusing production wastes, the waste may be trimmings or residues from production runs which are simply collected and reintroduced at the beginning of the process. An example might be a forging operation in which defective forgings are simply remelted. Another distinct instance is an operation which uses a portion of its raw materials, namely a waste product, as a fuel. An example is a saw mill that collects wood bark in debarking operations and uses it, with other wood-wastes, as fuel to power a boiler house which runs the sawing operations.

Electric steel mills that convert scrap metal into new steel products are the best-known example of an industry which runs exclusively on scrap. Waste-oil refineries are another example: they receive spent lubricants, filter out impurities, and blend the results into various low-end products.

The steel, paper, and glass industries are examples of operations which use both "virgin" materials and waste to make new products. Certain paper mills that produce paperboard (used in folding boxes, as backings for writing pads, and in other stiffening applicationssome-times coated on one or both sides by virgin sheets) and some mills that make newsprint also rely exclusively on waste paper. Others blend in portions of waste paper with new fiber. In glass, cullet is segregated by color and if clean enough is used in clear glass; if of dark color, cullet is used in dark-colored glass.

By far the largest recycler of post-consumption scrap is the steel industry. Its products are very durable and widely used in products that are readily collected for recycling (like auto wrecks and appliances). According to the Steel Recycling Institute (SRI), the industry routinely recovers more than 70 percent of its output again as scrap; the industry reached a 75.7 percent recycling rate in 2005. Rates vary from year-to-year reflecting economic conditions. The lowest apparent recovery rates in steel coincide with the greatest dispersion of the product. Thus recycled can recovery accounted for 63 percent of steel used in cans and reinforcing bar recovery for 65 percent of re-bar production in 2005, but rates were 102 percent for autos, 96 percent for appliances, and 87.5 percent for structural beams and parts. These rates are calculated by expressing scrap collected from a category (e.g., appliances) with total steel consumed by that category; hence, in the case of autos, more steel was recovered from cars in 2005 than used in cars that year.


In the energy-intensive industrieslike steel, paper, aluminum, and glassuse of waste materials reduces energy costs because the wastes are already at a higher state of purity than incoming raw materials like ores, logs, and sand. To be sure, energy is required for collecting and transporting such "previously owned" raw materials back to production plants again. In many cases shredding or cutting the waste products requires additional energy. Autos are partially disassembledseats and engine and electronics are removed. Newsprint requires deinkinganother energy-consumptive activity. But energy use is almost always less than required in processing virgin raw materials. For this reason easily accessible products, especially those that are bulky and thus already "aggregated" (like junked cars), are the most easily recycled. Those that require a high degree of sorting and consume the most resources at the front end and are least reused. If energy costs rise in the futureas indeed they are very likely to dorecycling will intensify. In such an environment, human labor ("calories") will become less expensive than machine labor ("BTUs"). As we approach an era of very high energy prices, recycling may offeras it already doessignificant opportunities for small business enterprises in mining our wastes for gold.


Davis, Mackenzie L., and Susan J. Masten. Principles of Environmental Engineering and Sciences. McGraw Hill, 2004

Green, Jen. Waste and Recycling. Chrysalis Books Group, 2004.

"Set Up an Office Recycling System." Business JournalMilwaukee. 11 February 2000.

"Steel Recycling in the U.S. Continues its Record Pace in 2005." Press Release. Steel Recycling Institute. 25 April 2006.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Municipal Solid Waste." August 2005. Available from Retrieved on 16 May 2006.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2003. April 2005.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Recycling." Available from Retrieved on 15 May 2006.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Summary of the EPA Municipal Solid Waste Program." Available from Retrieved on 16 May 2006.

                                   Darnay, ECDI

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Recycling is any process that involves the recovery and reuse of materials that were once considered trash. Recycling can be as simple as reusing somethingsuch as a coat or computerby 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 yearor 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 ground-waterwater 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 againfor 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?

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. 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. 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.

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

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

Plastics. 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. 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.

Computers. 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.

CompostingRecycling 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.

see also Composting; Plastics; Pollution Prevention; Reuse; Solid Waste; Waste Reduction.


Ackerman, Frank. (1997). Why Do We Recycle? Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Cothran, Helen, ed. (2003). Garbage and Recycling: Opposing Viewpoints. Chicago: Greenhaven Press.

The Earthworks Group. (1989). 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Berkeley, CA: The Earthworks Press.

The Earthworks Group. (1990). The Recyclers Handbook: Simple Things You Can Do. Berkeley, CA: The Earthworks Press.

League of Women's Voters. (1993). The Garbage Primer: A Handbook for Citizens. New York: Lyons and Burford Publishers.

Mc Donough, William, and Braungart, Michael. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: Northpoint Press.

Nova Scotia Department of the Environment. (2001). Status Report 2001 of Solid Waste-Resource Management in Nova Scotia. Halifax, NS: Nova Scotia Department of the Environment.

Thompson, Claudia G. (1992). Recycled Papers: The Essential Guide. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

internet resources

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Municipal Solid Waste." Available from

Global Recycling Network Web site. Available from

Recycling Today Web site. Available from

Corliss Karasov


The Netherlands recycled more than three quarters (77%)of the approximately 65 million tons of garbage it generated in 2000. Public pressure to reduce dioxin emissions from incineration plants and pollution from landfills led to landfill taxes beginning in 1995 and a landfill ban on combustible waste in 1997. In addition, government-owned incineration plants were operated below full capacity at the same time as incentives to expand the recyclables market and encourage end-of-life producer responsibility were initiated. Mandatory separation of different types of industrial wastes, with recycling of construction and demolition waste within a government financed infrastructure, and municipal curbside pickups of organic waste for composting, along with separated household recyclables, has decreased landfilling from 35 percent in 1985 to 9 percent in 2000.

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Remains of human settlements through the ages are characterized by garbage. Early human encampments are surrounded by discarded bones, shells, and broken tools and weapons. While such material is a boon to archaeologists, the mountains of discarded materials produced by today's society threaten to consume available land near large cities, and they pollute the water supplies of both rural and urban environments. Nearly every object and material discarded by humans can be recycled, reducing the cost and danger of disposal and providing valuable resources for industry and the home. Recycling also restricts many dangerous substances to facilities designed to handle them.

The Emergence of Recycling

Many Americans remember when garbage disposal was as simple as placing the material in a can in the alley or, in the case of rural residents, feeding the pig, or tossing everything into a nearby ditch in the name, at least, of erosion control. Our ancestors lived lives much simpler and were much less encumbered by material possessions. Bottles, buttons, nails, and wood all passed through a progression of steps and were smelted, rewoven, reshaped, or burned. Few people anywhere lived in societies where many materials were simply thrown away. The largest furniture store now operating in the United States was founded by two immigrants who began their careers as rag and bottle pickers during the early 1900s.

Every bottle or jar in early America was recycled, and pieces were used for purposes as varied as arrowheads and grit for chickens. Birds, lacking teeth, must collect small rocks, or grit, in order to grind their food in the craw. Old-time farmers sometimes ground glass when oyster shell or other sources of grit were unavailable. Ground glass was also mixed with glue to make abrasives. The vast numbers of buffalo killed by Native American or European hunters left huge quantities of bones on the prairie, but early scavengers collected them and shipped them to plants where they were ground for fertilizer. Early-day cloth was collected and treated to reclaim fiber, which could be woven into string or rope. Most cities contain parks, and below many of these parks are landfills dating back as far as the 1800s. A lack of landfill space, increasing transportation costs, and tougher government regulations now diminish the use of landfills, and many smaller communities sport signboards denouncing the importation of waste from other cities or states.

Recycling falls into two categories: direct and indirect. Direct recycling is the reuse of components of manufactured materials before sale, often in the case of damaged or unsold products. Indirect recycling is the practice of recycling products or materials that consumers have used and discarded.

Shortages during World War I and World War II prompted scrap iron, fiber, and rubber drives, reclaiming many essential materials. The first items to be recycled through organized programs other than in wartime were milk and other beverage bottles. In days when milkmen placed bottles on doorsteps, the heavy bottles were returned, washed, and refilled dozens of times. During the 1940s and 1950s, families scavenged for soda and beer bottles and cans along highways, and many children supplemented or earned allowances by collecting bottles for the two-cent deposit. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans have largely replaced the reusable bottles of the twentieth century. Many states now mandate five- to ten-cent deposits on the plastic replacements. The scrap material drives of the World Wars brought the public's attention to the fact that many more fabrics, metals, and rubber items could be recycled.


The most commonly recycled material is water. Seldom destroyed in use, water serves as a medium for chemical reactions and as a heat transfer mechanism in steam or hot water systems, car engines, and various industrial processes. Moderately dirty water may be dumped directly into streams, injected into wells, or, in the case of cooling water from power plants, allowed to pass through wetlands to cool.

Water containing sewage is given primary treatment consisting of settling and filtration and secondary aeration treatment to allow oxidative bacteria to reduce the bacterial oxidative demand (BOD). Tertiary treatment with chlorine, chloramines, or ozone is used if the water is needed for consumption. In rural areas, sewage may pass through a cesspool for sedimentation and anaerobic bacterial action, and the effluent may be distributed through a series of pipes into a disposal field. Water that has low BOD is usually purified by bacterial action in soil so that after passing some distance through the ground, biodegradable substances are removed. It is particularly important that detergents be biodegradable and contain minimal amounts of phosphates and nitrates, as these substances, along with high BOD water, contribute to eutrophication, a rapid growth of bacteria. Eutrophication may consume so much available oxygen that fish and other organisms die.

Farms, ranches, and feedlots provide food but often are major sources of pollution. Modern feedlots store sewage in lagoons where solids can be collected. Effluent water from lagoons often contains microorganisms that serve as food in fish farms, and solids from the lagoons can be processed into fertilizer. The effectiveness of these operations is often determined by the size of the operation and the need for cleanup. Larger operations can afford more complex remediation equipment and tend to be more costeffective than small ones. Most large feedlots are located away from population centers whose residents often complain of the odors.

Federal, state, and municipal laws mandate that industries reclaim most pollutants, such as heavy metals or organic chemicals, from wastewater. Prior to this legislation, toxic chemicals often made their way into the water table. Reclaiming toxic substances protects the environment and, in many cases, provides a valuable source of materials needed for synthesis . In many cases, industries are located near other manufacturing plants that pass their waste to another plant, which uses it as a raw material.

Paper, Steel, and Aluminum

Paper, in the form of used newspapers, packing materials, and telephone books, may be burned for energy, but it still makes up 30 percent to 45 percent of the average landfill. Landfilled paper requires decades to decay and may release methane, a greenhouse gas that is twenty times as deleterious as carbon dioxide. Most paper could be reused or converted to materials used for blown insulation. Nearly 40 percent of office paper and newspapers is now recycled. Two problems occur in recycling paper. Each time paper is reprocessed, the fibers break and become shorter. Office copiers work best with long-fiber paper that has higher tensile strength and produces less dust. Fiber from used paper is often blended with new fibers to produce the desired qualities. A second problem in recycling office paper is the demand for white paper. Used paper pulp often contains ink or other colored materials that must be removed. Some inks and adhesives can be removed by flotation, and bleaching then whitens the pulp. Older methods of chlorine bleaching produced toxic dioxin. Oxygen and hydrogen peroxide are now used to whiten paper and are considered less damaging to the environment. Use of colored papers for printing and copying greatly decreases the need for bleaching.

Steel is widely recycled. Soon after steel was first produced, damaged steel items were recycled into new products. Today, 68 percent of used steel is recycled. The basic oxygen process of steel manufacture uses 25 percent scrap as starting material, and nearly 100 percent of the starting material for steel production by the electric arc process is scrap. Many states have "clunker" laws that require that the purchase of a new car be accompanied by turning in a junked car, and most municipalities have programs for collecting and recycling used auto parts and furniture.

Aluminum is one of the most commonly recycled metals. Although many aluminum products are still discarded, 65 percent of aluminum materials are recycled; 95 percent less energy is needed to produce aluminum from recycled cans than from aluminum ore.

Plastics and Oil

Plastics make up only about 8 percent of the volume in the average landfill but represent a huge investment of energy and raw materials. Most plastics produced from petroleum materials by polymerization of monomers such as ethylene or vinyl chloride are thermoplastic materials and can be cleaned, melted, and re-formed. Thermosetting plastics can also be cut into pieces that are mixed with other plastics or used as fillers. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) are the most widely reused plastic materials, but polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene, and polystyrene account for 5 percent of the recycled plastics. In 2001 80 million pounds (36 million kilograms) of plastics were recycled in the United States. Recycled plastic materials are used in the production of bottles, fabrics, flowerpots, furniture, plastic lumber, injection molded crates, and automobile parts.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans discard 120 million gallons (454 million liters) of oil each year as a result of automobile oil changes. Virtually all this oil can be recycled, and most states require recycling. Used motor oil contains particulate matter and some chemical substances that must be removed during re-refining. As much as 80 percent of used motor oil is used with little change as a fuel for ships or industrial heating equipment, but this practice probably poses a greater danger to the environment than burning refined oil.

Batteries, Rubber, and Paint

Used lead-acid automobile batteries represent a major hazard to the environment. Most landfills accept batteries but place them aside for recycling, which includes collecting and neutralizing the acid, removing the cases, and resmelting the lead plates. Fragments of cases can be recycled into new battery cases, and resmelted lead is used to cast new battery plates. In New Zealand alone, 500,000 lead-acid storage batteries are recycled each year.

Rechargeable batteries from power tools, telephones, and most other devices can be recycled. Nonrecyclable batteries often contain mercury or other toxic metals that are harmful to the environment, but in the early twenty-first century, most were still discarded in landfills.

Rubber products pose a special problem in the environment, and their dumping in landfills usually requires a special fee. Discarded in piles or buried, they occasionally catch fire and produce noxious gases. In developing countries, many used or damaged automobile tires are repaired or disassembled to make other products. Granulated rubber produced from

discarded tires can be used to make floor mats and rubber wheels, and it can be used as a component of asphalt-paving materials. Used rubber can be heated to reclaim petroleum products, treated chemically to obtain components used as filler in manufacturing rubber products, or incinerated as a source of energy.

Many recyclable materials consist of mixed materials that pose special problems. Discarded automobile oil filters contain steel, fiber, and contaminated petroleum. Oil filters are crushed and heated to remove oil, and the metal reclaimed. Discarded household appliances contain large amounts of steel but must often be dismantled, with other materials removed. A special fee is charged at recycling centers to discard most appliances. Fluorescent lamps contain small amounts of mercury that can be reclaimed. Used computers and television sets contain usable materials and, often, some toxic materials that can be collected for safe disposal.

The small amounts of paint generated by the average household cannot be recycled economically, but most municipalities sponsor paint exchange programs and collect oil-based paints. Spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants can be recycled to reclaim unused uranium, and some spent uranium is used to produce armor-piercing bullets. Yard waste from households is often recycled and made into mulch for farming and gardening. Discarded Christmas trees are used to form mulch or are immersed in lakes as a habitat for fish.

see also Environmental Pollution; Water; Water Pollution; Water Quality.

Dan M. Sullivan


Ehrig, R. J., ed. (1992). Plastics Recycling: Products and Processes. New York: Hanser Publishers.

Internet Resources

American Plastics Council. Information available from <>.

Environmental News Network. Information available from <>.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Information available from <>.

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RECYCLING. The term "recycling" was virtually unused outside of industry before the late 1960s when voluntary programs were formed by counterculture communities. The emerging culture of hippies reapplied the age-old practice of collecting and reusing materials. For centuries, rag pickers collected worn out cloth and sold it to those who made paper. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did the demand for paper outstrip the quantity of rags. It was then that the method of making paper from wood was invented. Wood soon replaced textile fiber entirely in paper manufacturing, preparing the way for paper to become the most plentiful item in twentieth-century landfills.

The United States evolved from a nation of people who saved pieces of twine and reused nails (as Henry David Thoreau did, when building his cabin at Walden Pond) to a "throwaway society" of people who discarded containers, furniture, appliances, and even automobiles by the mid-twentieth century. The need to conserve and reuse materials, while stressed as a patriotic duty during World War II, was forgotten in the postwar boom.

"Fast food" emerged, sold in plastic and foam containers which, like so much else, was considered "disposable." Then, on the heels of the 1960s movements for civil rights and peace, came "the greening of America," a political movement to save the environment. The size of the environmental movement became apparent on 22 April 1970 when 20 million people turned out to celebrate the first Earth Day. Months later, Congress created the Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA). Soon books like Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome (1972) began making the case that our American way of life was not sustainable.

The Truth about Consequences: Hard Choices

Recycling is the most obvious way individuals can assist in waste management, though source reduction can also be practiced. The "diaper wars" of the late 1980s exemplify the latter, reducing the amount of waste by using cloth diapers. But the makers of disposable diapers argued that washing cloth diapers used energy and water, offsetting any benefit. Making choices that "save the Earth" turned out to be complex.

Another hard choice for consumers was the "paper or plastic" question at the grocery store. This apparently ethical question became moot when it was discovered that neither would decompose in a landfill. Marketers promoted items as good for the environment because they were biodegradable, but consumers later found that the term had little meaning. One researcher dug up ten-year old chicken bones in a landfill, demonstrating that in the absence of light and air, even organic waste does not decompose.

Recycling Goes Mainstream

In the late 1980s, news reports began referring to a "land-fill crisis" and showed images of medical waste washing up on beaches. Support for recycling spread beyond the minority of environmentalists to the general population. By then most of the voluntary programs, unable to accommodate the quantity of recyclables and fluctuating prices, had disappeared. In their stead, large, efficient trash collection companies had begun to offer curbside recycling (often required by municipalities). This combination of widespread concern and the convenience of curbside collection led to increasing quantities of recycled trash.

Recycling is, of course, only one of many interrelated environmental issues, but it is the one to which everyone can contribute directly. Americans began to associate it with groundwater pollution, topsoil erosion, deforestation, and global warming. "Do you recycle?" became an ethical question, and curbside recycling grew rapidly in urban areas. By 1999, curbside recycling was available to over half the population of the United States. It was much more widespread in the urban Northeast (83 percent) than in the more rural South (39 percent), with the West and Midwest averaging 48 percent.

Thus the quantity of household waste which was recycled increased significantly in the United States. In 1980, the average weight of materials recycled per person per day was 0.35 pounds; it increased to 0.70 by 1990 and to 1.30 by 1999. At the same time, the amount of generated waste increased from 3.7 in 1980 to 4.5 in 1990; however, that figure stopped growing as rapidly and was only 4.6 pounds in 1999.

On Earth Day 1990, about 200 million people in 137 countries showed support. Recycling was declared "more popular than democracy" by the editor of Resource Recycling who claimed that more people recycled than voted in the November 1991 elections (September 1992 issue; qtd. in Ackerman, p. 8). Indeed, recycling had become so significant in the American conscience that a Wall Street Journal article connected the act of recycling with religious ritual: "For many, a little trash sorting has become a form of penance to acknowledge that the values of our high-consumption society don't always nurture the soul" (19 January 1995; quoted in Ackerman, pp. 9–10). The

title of the article, "Curbside Recycling Comforts the Soul, But Benefits Are Scant," suggests one of the basic points of contention: should recycling be profitable?

To Recycle or Not: The Argument

Challengers to recycling argue that we should allow the market to determine what is recycled. For the most part, curbside recycling does not pay for itself except for aluminum cans. The environmental advocates, however, list two kinds of benefits. First, in waste management, recy-cling reduces the amount of waste, thereby reducing both pollution from landfills and litter from improper disposal; second, on the production end, recycled materials reduce pollution and energy costs and extend the life of raw materials which cannot be replaced.

The "anti-recyclers" argue that the "landfill crisis" of the 1980s was largely exaggerated and that even with the added cost of containment, landfills are cheaper than recycling. However, many people balk at locating landfills near where they live: the NIMBY response ("Not In My Back Yard"). Further, recycling advocates point out, we must weigh the social value of recycling rather than measure it solely by economics, and if we do use economics, we must consider the hidden costs (such as cleaning up pollution and end-of-life disposal) and not just the immediate ones.

The continuing dialogue about recycling is well illustrated by the February 2002 response of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC)—one of many groups formed around this issue—to the white paper put out by the EPA. The NRC finds much to approve of in the EPA recommendations but returns to the fundamental issue of sustainability: can we go on producing and consuming and disposing of material goods at an ever-increasing rate?


Ackerman, Frank. Why Do We Recycle: Markets, Values, and Public Policy. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997.

Alexander, Judd H. In Defense of Garbage. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993.

Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999.

Strong, Debra L. Recycling in America: A Reference Handbook. 2d ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

William E.King

See alsoWaste Disposal .

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"Recycling." Dictionary of American History. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Recycling is a method of reusing materials that would otherwise be disposed of in a landfill or incinerator. Household products that contain glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic are used for recycling and to make new products. Recycling has many benefits: it saves money in production and energy costs, helps save the environment from the impacts of extracting and processing virgin (never used; not altered by human activity) materials, and means that there is less trash that needs to be disposed.

The concept of recycling is not a new one. At the beginning of the twentieth century, 70 percent of the nation's cities had programs to recycle one or more specific materials. During World War II (193945), 25 percent of the waste generated by industrial processes was recycled and reused. Since the general public has become more environmentally conscious, the recycling rate in the United States has risen from 7 percent in 1960 to 17 percent in 1990 to 28 percent in 2000. Analysts predict that by 2005, Americans will be recycling and composting at least 83 tons (75 metric tons) or 35 percent of all municipal waste.


Recycling is a three-step process. The first step involves collecting and reprocessing materials for recycling. These materials must be separated from other trash and prepared to become new products. Manufacturing of new products from recycled materials is the second step. The final step is the consumer's purchase and use of the recycled product.

Some problems with recycling

These steps may appear to constitute a simple and straightforward process, but such is not the case. A number of basic questions have to be resolved before recycling of solid wastes can become a practical reality. Some of these questions are technological. For example, there is currently no known way to recycle certain types of widely used plastics in an economical way. There is no problem in collecting these plastics and separating them from trash, but the process stops there. No one has found a method for re-melting the plastics and then converting them into new products.

A second problem is economic. Suppose that it costs more to make a new product out of recycled materials than out of new materials. What

company is willing to lose money by using recycled, rather than new, materials?


One way to expand the use of recycling, of course, is to invent more efficient technologies to deal with waste materials. Another approach, however, is to use the power of government to encourage or even require recycling. Governments are interested in promoting recycling because the cost of other means of solid waste disposal is often very high. If citizens can be made to recycle waste materials rather than to just throw them away, governments can save money on sanitary landfills, incinerators, and other means of waste disposal.

Both the U.S. federal government and individual states have now passed a number of laws relating to recycling. For example, a number of states states (including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia require that newspapers published in their jurisdictions have a minimum content of recycled fiber.

On the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires government agencies to set aside a portion of their budgets to buy recycled products. All agencies are required to purchase recycled paper, refined oil, building insulation made with recycled material, and other items that are made from recycled products.

Government regulations, however, are not necessarily the best possible answer to developing recycling policies. For one thing, prices are usually higher for recycled products, and there may be problems with availability and quality of recycled goods.

Overall, researchers and environmentalists tend to agree that creativity will be the key to solving many of our solid waste disposal problems. Many landfills have reached their carrying capacity. In 1978, there were roughly 14,000 landfills in the United States. By 2000, that number had dropped to just over 5,000. Many of those currently open are expected to be closed within a few years. Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, New York, was the largest landfill in the world. It covered over 2,200 acres (880 hectares) and reached a height taller than the Statue of Liberty. Open in 1948, it was finally closed in March 2001. As we continue to run out of space to put solid waste, recycling, composting, and reusing are fast becoming environmental and economic necessities to help reduce some of that waste.

[See also Composting; Waste management ]

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recycling, the process of recovering and reusing waste products—from household use, manufacturing, agriculture, and business—and thereby reducing their burden on the environment. During World War I and World War II, shortages of essential materials led to collection drives for silk, rubber, and other commodities. In recent years the environmental benefits of recycling have become a major component of waste management programs.

Waste Disposal and Recycling

For many years direct recycling by producers of surplus and defective materials constituted the main form of recycling. However, indirect recycling, the recycling of materials after their use by consumers, became the focus of activity in the 1990s. For some time, most solid waste has been deposited in landfills or dumps. Landfills are filling up, however, and disposal of wastes in them has led to environmental problems. Also, government (which had little authority over disposal of wastes until the 1970s) now has extensive regulatory powers.

A growing alternative to such disposal is recycling. Industry has found that when it undertakes serious recycling programs, the savings can sometimes be considerable. In addition to reducing manufacturing and materials costs, such programs can insulate the companies from liability for environmental violations. Agriculture, which is the cause of much environmental degradation, can use organic recycling, or the reuse of manure and crop residues (sometimes called "green manure" ).

Water, in one sense, is always recycled, inasmuch as there is a finite amount of it available on earth and it constantly moves through its cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Deliberate programs for recycling water include use of wetlands as areas to filter harmful wastes from the substance, or using partly treated sewage for raising fish. Municipal sewage- and water-treatment plants, of course, are fundamental recycling agents.

The individual consumer plays a large part in recycling. Originally, household containers such as beverage cans and bottles were recycled as a matter of course, with a glass beer container or milk bottle being refilled as many as 30 times; in 1935, brewers began putting their products in nonrefillable, "one-way" cans for the convenience of customers, and soon glass containers were declared disposable as well. With the rise of environmentalism in the early 1970s, recycling regained favor. Several states instituted deposit laws for beverage containers; a 5- or 10-cent deposit was charged the consumer at the time of purchase for each can or bottle, then refunded when the container was returned to a store or recycling center. Newspapers take up much volume in landfills, and some recycling programs seek to collect them (along with other sorted categories of waste, such as organic matter, bones, and plastic).

Use of Recycled Materials

In 1996, 27% of solid waste in the United States was recycled. Products that are recycled in large quantities include paper and paperboard, ferrous metals, aluminum and other nonferrous metals, glass, plastics, and yard wastes. Although many local communities have instituted comprehensive recycling programs, these remain expensive. Because the quality of recycled items is often inferior (often due to the mixture or age of the materials in the items being recycled) and not suitable for their original purpose, the price for many recycled materials remains low and makes recycling economically nonviable in some instances. In an attempt to solve this problem, new uses have been created for recovered waste material. Crushed glass, for instance, can be substituted for gravel or sand in road surfacing and other construction applications; the resulting product is called "glassphalt." Scientists and entrepreneurs are also working on ways to turn the world's growing piles of discarded automobile tires into new products or to use them to generate safe energy.


See R. E. Easterling, Reuse of Disposables (1983); W. U. Chandler, Materials Recycling (1983); C. Polprasert, Organic Waste Recycling (1989).

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"recycling." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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re·cy·cle / rēˈsīkəl/ • v. [tr.] convert (waste) into reusable material: car hulks were recycled into new steel | [as adj.] (recycled) goods made of recycled materials | [as n.] (recycling) a call for the recycling of all paper. ∎  return (material) to a previous stage in a cyclic process. ∎  use again: he reserves the right to recycle his own text. DERIVATIVES: re·cy·cler / -k(ə)lər/ n.

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"recycle." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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recycling Natural and manufactured processes by which substances are broken down and reconstituted. In nature, elemental cycles include the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, and hydrological cycle. Natural cyclic chemical processes include the metabolic cycles in the bodies of living organisms. Manufactured recycling includes the use of bacteria to break down organic wastes to harmless, or even beneficial, substances. Large quantities of inorganic waste, such as metal scrap, glass bottles, and building spoil, are recycled.

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"recycling." World Encyclopedia. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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1. The recovery and processing of materials after they have been used, which enables them to be reused. For example, used paper, cans, and glass can be broken down into their constituents, which form the raw materials for the manufacture of new products.

2. The continual movement of essential elements between the biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) components of the environment. See carbon cycle; nitrogen cycle; oxygen cycle; phosphorus cycle; sulphur cycle.

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"recycling." A Dictionary of Biology. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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