Recycling
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Recycling involves processing used materials into new products in order to prevent the waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air (from incineration) and water (from landfilling) pollution by reducing the need for "conventional" waste disposal, and lower greenhouse gas emissions as compared to virgin production. Recycling is a key component of modern waste management and is the third component of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" waste hierarchy.

Recyclable materials include glass, paper, metal, textiles, electronics (cell phones, computers) and plastics. Though similar, the composting of biodegradable waste – such as food or garden waste – is not typically considered recycling. These materials are either brought to a collection centre or picked-up from the curbside; and sorted, cleaned and reprocessed into new products bound for manufacturing.

However, critics of recycling claim that it often wastes more resources than it saves, especially in cases where it is mandated by government.

Background

In the United States, recycling facilities earn estimated revenues of $2,981 million a year. Growth has exceeded 7% per year for the past five years (from 2003 to 2008) due to rising waste volumes and increasing recyclable commodity prices. New initiatives can change the industry. For example, in California and New York, moves to raise the requirements for the set amount of waste to be diverted from the waste stream from 50 percent to 75 percent can produce healthy profits for companies that collect and process recyclables.

Cost-benefit analysis

Environmental effects of recycling
MaterialEnergy SavingsAir Pollution Savings
Aluminum95%95%
Cardboard24%
Glass5-30%20%
Paper40%73%
Plastics70%
Steel60%

There is some debate over whether recycling is economically efficient. 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 found that in 83% of cases, recycling is the most efficient method to dispose of household waste. In addition to fiscal benefits, justification for recycling lie in what economists call externalities, unpriced costs and benefits which accrue to individuals outside of private transactions. Examples include: increased 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. Without mechanisms such as taxes or subsidies to internalize externalities, businesses will ignore them despite the costs imposed on society. In order to make such non-fiscal 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 favour of recycling, saying that recycling efforts reduced the country''s carbon emissions by a net 49 million metric tonnes in 2005. In the United Kingdom, the 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.

Certain requirements must be met in order 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 "collection".

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 landfill instead of reprocessed. According to one report, in America, 50-80% of computers destined for recycling are actually not recycled. However, Pieter van Beukering, an economist specialising in waste imports of China and India, believes that it is unlikely that bought materials would merely be dumped in landfill: he also claims that the import of recyclates allows for large-scale reprocessing, improving both the fiscal and environmental return through economies of scale. 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. Though the Chinese government has banned these practices, it has not been able to eradicate them completely, nor estimate the amount of illegal recycling still occurring.

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 US import large quantities of wine bottled in green glass. Though much of this glass is sent to be recycled, outside the 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 difficultly 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 US, however, demand for used newsprint has seen wide fluctuation.

In some US states, a program called RecycleBank pays people with coupons 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.

Legislation

Supply

In order 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 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% 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 third method of 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.

Government-mandated demand

Legislation has also been used to increase and maintain a demand for recycled materials. Four methods of such legislation exist: minimum recycled content mandates, utilisation rates, procurement policies, recycled product labelling.

Both minimum recycled content mandates and utilisation 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. Utilisation 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 earmark 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 US, 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. Standardised recycling labelling can also have a positive effect on supply of recyclates if the labelling includes information on how and where the product can be recycled.

Sustainable design

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 first 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.

As with environmental economics, care must be taken to ensure a complete view of the costs and benefits involved. For example, cardboard packaging for food products is more easily recycled than plastic, but is heavier to ship and may result in more waste from spoilage.