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Municipal Solid Waste: Recycling

Overview

Recycling is a series of activities that includes collecting recyclable materials that would otherwise be considered waste, sorting and processing recyclables into raw materials such as fibers, and manufacturing raw materials into new products.

Recycling Process

Collecting and processing secondary materials, manufacturing recycled-content products, and then purchasing recycled products creates a circle or loop that ensures the overall success and value of recycling.

Step 1. Collection and Processing
Collecting recyclables varies from community to community, but there are four primary methods: curbside, drop-off centers, buy-back centers, and deposit/refund programs.

Regardless of the method used to collect the recyclables, the next leg of their journey is usually the same. Recyclables are sent to a materials recovery facility to be sorted and prepared into marketable commodities for manufacturing. Recyclables are bought and sold just like any other commodity, and prices for the materials change and fluctuate with the market.

Step 2. Manufacturing
Once cleaned and separated, the recyclables are ready to undergo the second part of the recycling loop. More and more of today's products are being manufactured with total or partial recycled content. Common household items that contain recycled materials include newspapers and paper towels; aluminum, plastic, and glass soft drink containers; steel cans; and plastic laundry detergent bottles. Recycled materials also are used in innovative applications such as recovered glass in roadway asphalt (glassphalt) or recovered plastic in carpeting, park benches, and pedestrian bridges.

Step 3. Purchasing Recycled Products
Purchasing recycled products completes the recycling loop. By "buying recycled," governments, as well as businesses and individual consumers, each play an important role in making the recycling process a success. As consumers demand more environmentally sound products, manufacturers will continue to meet that demand by producing high-quality recycled products. Learn more about recycling terminology and to find tips on identifying recycled products.


Recycling Facts and Figures

  • In 1999, recycling and composting activities prevented about 64 million tons of material from ending up in landfills and incinerators. Today, this country recycles 32 percent of its waste, a rate that has almost doubled during the past 15 years.

  • While recycling has grown in general, recycling of specific materials has grown even more drastically: 50 percent of all paper, 34 percent of all plastic soft drink bottles, 45 percent of all aluminum beer and soft drink cans, 63 percent of all steel packaging, and 67 percent of all major appliances are now recycled.

  • Twenty years ago, only one curbside recycling program existed in the United States, which collected several materials at the curb. By 2005, almost 9,000 curbside programs had sprouted up across the nation. As of 2005, about 500 materials recovery facilities had been established to process the collected materials.

Opportunities

For recycling to work, everyone has to participate in each phase of the loop. From government and industry, to organizations, small businesses, and people at home, every American can make recycling a part of their daily routine. Below are some ways in which businesses, local governments, and citizens can get involved:

Businesses

Local Governments

  • Improve the efficiency of your collection program. An EPA resource entitled Getting More for Less: Improving Collection Efficiency [Adobe PDF, 880 KB, about PDF] (EPA530-R-99-038) explains several important strategies for improving efficiency as well as case studies of communities that have reaped the benefits of improved solid waste collection.

  • Practice full cost accounting (FCA). Visit the FCA Web site for more information on using FCA to assist with identifying and assessing the costs of solid waste management.

  • Identify opportunities to increase recycling rates. Visit Pennsylvania's Web site for examples of local government projects in Pennsylvania to help meet or exceed the state's 35 percent recycling goal. Also, view EPA's guidance on measuring the success of your state or local recycling program.

Citizens

  • Recycle at home. Find out if there is a recycling program in your community. If so, participate in the program by separating and putting out your recyclables for curbside pickup or taking them to your local drop-off or buy-back center.

  • Shop smarter. Use products in containers that can be recycled in your community and items that can be repaired or reused. Also, support recycling markets by buying and using products made from recycled materials.

  • Recycle on the Go! Look for recycling places in public spaces. If you can't find a recycling place, ask the responsible authority to look into installing one so you can recycle on the go.

Related Links

Programs

Publications

Organizations

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20460
www.epa.gov