Recycling is processing used materials into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution and water pollution by reducing the need for traditional waste disposal, and lower greenhouse gas emissions as compared to the original production. Recyclable materials include many kinds of glass, paper, plastic, and some electronics. 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 bound 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 bottles would be produced into new bottles. However, this is often difficult or too expensive so recycling of many products or materials involves their reuse in producing different materials like paperboard instead. Another form of recycling is the regaining of certain materials from complex products, either due to their intrinsic value like lead or car batteries, or due to their hazardous nature like things with mercury in it.
Many people dispute the main economic and environmental benefits of recycling over its costs, and suggest that proponents of recycling often make matters worse and suffer from being prejudice. Specifically, critics argue that the costs and energy used in collection and transportation outweighs the costs and energy saved in the production process, and 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 original production, and that materials such as paper pulp can only be recycled a few times before material degradation prevents further recycling.
Critics of recycling dispute each of these claims, and the validity of arguments from both sides has led to enduring controversy. 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 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 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. Although many government programs are concentrated on recycling at home, a large portion of waste is generated by industry. The focus of many recycling programs done by industry is the cost-effectiveness of recycling.
The over-all 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 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. Also, the construction industry may recycle concrete and old road surface pavement, selling their waste materials for profit. There is some debate over whether recycling is economically efficient. Municipalities often see economic 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 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 aluminum ones. Economic efficiency is separate from economic efficiency. Economic analysis of recycling includes what economists call externalities, which are un-priced costs and benefits that build to individuals outside of private transactions.
Examples include: decreased air pollution and greenhouse gases from fire, 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 4000 minerals are known, of these only a few hundred minerals in the world are relatively common. At current rates, current known reserves of phosphorus will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years. Without mechanisms such as taxes or subsidies to internalize externalities, businesses will ignore them despite the costs imposed on society.
To make such non-economical 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 Kingdom, the Waste and Resources Action Program 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 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.
Many economists favor a moderate level of government intervention to provide recycling services. Economists of this mindset probably view product disposal as an externality of production and subsequently argue government is most capable of alleviating such a dilemma. However, those of the laissez faire approach to municipal recycling see product disposal as a service that consumers value. A free-market approach is more likely to suit the preferences of consumers since profit-seeking businesses have greater incentive to produce a quality product or service than does government.
Moreover, economists almost always advise against government intrusion in any market with little or no externalities. The amount of energy saved through recycling depends upon the material being recycled. Some, such as aluminum, save a great deal, while others may not save any. The 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. It is difficult to determine the exact amount of energy consumed or produced in waste disposal processes.
How much energy is used in recycling depends largely on the type of material being recycled and the process used to do so. Aluminum 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 aluminum cans produced came from recycled aluminum. I think we should all live by the saying, reduce, reuse, and recycle.