A Common Sense Practice
Recycling is simply the act of collecting and processing a resource, a product, or waste, in order to make something else. The used items can be re-made into new products that serve the exact same purpose as before, or they can be broken down for use as raw elements of a product, thereby performing an entirely new function. Throughout human history, goods of all kinds have been recycled for economy, convenience, and creative reasons.
Historic Examples of Recycling
In ancient Rome, out-of-date statues made of metals like copper were frequently dismantled, melted, and recast into new weapons and housewares.
In Europe, recycling of objects made of metal is a practice dating back to pre-industrial times. Valuable and strong metals like steel and bronze could be melted down and re-forged. The practice of recycling was common in many urban areas. Even seemingly worthless materials like ash and dust were collected and re-fashioned into new bricks.
The dawn of the industrial age required vast inputs of raw materials, which were often gleaned from scraps, like scrap metals. In the twentieth century, war and increased consumerism created heightened need for manufacturing materials, combined with greater scarcity. Organized public recycling systems began to form to accommodate these needs.
Recycling in Modern Times
Rising population, energy costs, and the increasing depletion of natural resources combined to create more institutionalized recycling systems throughout the later 1900s. With the construction of the first U.S. Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in the 1970s, recycling practices became more streamlined and economically viable on a large scale.
A growing popular consciousness of the impact of greenhouse gases, and other environmental and economical impacts of waste disposal, has led to widespread government regulation of recycling for home, business, and large industry. EPA estimates that by 2009, more than a third of all waste in the U.S. was recovered for recycling, generating hundreds of billions of dollars of new revenue in the process.
How Recycling Works
The recycling process can be broken into three main steps: collection and processing, manufacturing, and purchasing new products made from recycled materials. This process can be repeated, creating a continuous loop.
Collection and Processing: Waste is collected at the residential, business, institutional, and industrial level. Some of this waste is pre-sorted by consumers, as required by their municipality or haulers. The waste is then directed to the appropriate disposal facility, such as a landfill, incinerator, or materials recovery facility [MRF]. At a MRF, the waste is further sorted by hand and machine, compacted, and prepared for sale back to manufacturers. Just like the sale of any other material, the price of this material goes up and down based on supply and demand.
Manufacturing: Manufacturers prepare the materials for use. Metals are often melted and cast into sheets or ingots (solid blocks), and then rolled into very thin sheets. Glass is crushed, at which point it’s called “cullet”. Paper is pulped, and plastic is ground into small flakes before being melted and formed into pellets. From these states, new materials can be made — cans, glass bottles, newsprint, and plastic bottles are just a few examples of objects commonly made with recycled materials.
Purchasing New Products Made from Recycled Materials: Consumers can purchase goods made from recycled materials. Some products may be made entirely of recycled content, and some may be made partially of recycled content.
How Recycling Benefits the Environment and Economy
Recycling of goods directly cuts the emissions and environmental impacts associated with mining for raw materials and industrial production of new goods. Recycling also reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills, while providing significant employment and profits for recycling-based businesses.
Consumers can earn valuable incentives for recycling, as in the rewards offered by programs like Recyclebank. They can also save money when participating in pay-as-you-throw trash programs. Reducing consumption and re-using goods still provides the ultimate savings to consumers and the least environmental impact.
Where to Recycle
Most local government websites list nearby recycling options for a broad range of materials. Depending on where you live, these methods might include curbside pick-up, drop off locations, and mail-in options.