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About Recycling

The Basic Questions: What Is Recycling, Why Recycle, and What to Recycle


Welcome to our introduction to recycling. As your Guide to Recycling at About.com, I hope to answer some of the basic questions about recycling, such as "What is recycling, "What to recycle," and "Why recycle."

What Is Recycling?

Recycling can be defined as the production of new products or materials from used materials or scrap. Recycling is a key strategy in the reduction of solid waste, and the third plank of the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle. It is conventional wisdom that the best tact for society is to reduce the consumption of materials, and second best is to reuse the product multiple times, and the third best approach is recycling of the product. There are several different versions of the hierarchy, including an electronics recycling hierarchy. In terms of reuse, we see pallet recycling and electronics recycling as two segments of the recycling industry where products are reused as is or refurbished for resale.

Why recycle?

Through the activity of recycling, society works towards sustainability. Solid waste is diverted from increasingly unavailable landfills, and valuable resources are recovered for reuse. Less energy is used in the recycling of materials than creating virgin materials, and less pollution is created. For example, it only takes 5 percent of the energy required to produce a beverage can from recycled aluminum as from virgin aluminum produced through the processing of bauxite ore. Recycling has also become a major growth industry, creating thousands of jobs in the process. Critics of recycling argue that the business case for recycling sometimes isn’t always adequate, that the cost of recycling programs can outweigh the revenue from recovery and the savings of landfill avoidance. This can be more noticeably true when recyclable material recovery is low and the demand for recycled commodities dips. The economic case for recycling continues to improve as recycling rates increase and the industry matures. Ultimately, for society to be truly sustainable, we must become increasingly effective in recovering and reusing materials.

What to recycle?

The question of what to recycle continues to evolve. For curbside recycling, check with your community to see what materials are accepted for pickup. Typically, curbside pickup will include metal and plastic containers, as well as paper. Increasingly, curbside pickup is including organic waste, aseptic containers and other materials. For items not normally picked up by curbside programs such as electronics, appliances, tires, mattresses and other items, there may be recyclers in your area willing to accept them. As technologies improve and people get more into the mindset of recycling, new business opportunities for recycling continue to emerge – good news for both the environment and the economy.

How to Make Money from Scrap

Apart from curbside recycling programs, it is possible for individuals and businesses to profit from the business of recycling. Popular entrepreneurial activities include scrap metal collecting, or pallet collection. Individual collectors sell this material to recycling businesses, thereby helping generate material needed by recycling business.

The Importance of the Recycling Industry

Recycling is big business. The U.S. recycling industry processed more than 130 million metric tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, rubber and electronics into specification grade commodities in 2010, according to ISRI, the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries. With a value of more than $77 billion annually, the U.S. recycling industry employs about 130,000 employees. Recycling is a sophisticated, capital intensive industry.

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