Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. The recovery of energy from waste materials is often included in this concept. The recyclability of a material depends on its ability to reacquire the properties it had in its original state. It is an alternative to “conventional” waste disposal that can save material and help lower greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling can prevent the waste of potentially useful materials and reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, thereby reducing: energy usage, air pollution (from incineration), and water pollution (from landfilling).

Recycling is a key component of modern waste reduction and is the third component of the “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” waste hierarchy. Thus, recycling aims toward environmental sustainability by substituting raw material inputs into and redirecting waste outputs out of the economic system. There are some ISO standards related to recycling such as ISO 15270:2008 for plastics waste and ISO 14001:2015 for environmental management control of recycling practice.

Recyclable materials include many kinds of glass, paper, cardboard, metal, plastic, tires, textiles, batteries, and electronics. The composting or other reuse of biodegradable waste—such as food or garden waste—is also a form of recycling. Materials to be recycled are either delivered to a household recycling center or picked up from curbside bins, then sorted, cleaned, and reprocessed into new materials destined for manufacturing new products.

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 polystyrene foam into new polystyrene. This is accomplished when recycling certain types of materials, such as metal cans, becoming a can again and again, indefinitely, without losing purity in the product. However, this is often difficult or too expensive (compared with producing the same product from raw materials or other sources), so “recycling” of many products or materials involves their reuse in producing different materials (for example, paperboard) instead. Another form of recycling is the salvage of certain materials from complex products, either due to their intrinsic value (such as lead from car batteries, or gold from printed circuit boards), or due to their hazardous nature (e.g., removal and reuse of mercury from thermometers and thermostats).

Why is it important to recycle?

With the involvement and enthusiasm of people like you, recycling is back and so are thousands upon thousands of recycled products made from materials that would otherwise be piling up in our nation’s landfills. It makes a huge difference to our environment, our quality of life, and our country’s future.

Waste Generation Increases

In 2014, Americans generated about 258 million tons of trash and recycled 66.4 million tons and composted 23 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 34.6 percent recycling rate. On average, we recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.44 pounds per person per day.

The state of the economy has a strong impact on consumption and waste generation. Waste generation increases during times of strong economic growth and decreases during times of economic decline. To learn more about waste generation in the US see the US EPA report Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures.

This data is taken from Stanford University’s Recycling and Solid Waste Report 2016 and fed into the US EPA WAste Reduction Model (WARM).

Can recycling save energy?

Yes it can! Here’s some fun facts from CalRecycle to show you how!

If you look at the big picture of what it takes to create a product from scratch — to get the raw materials, transport them, process them and manufacture them — making goods with recycled material like paper, plastic, glass, and metal is a major energy saver.

Seattle economist Jeffrey Morris estimated that manufacturing one ton of office and computer paper with recycled paper stock can save nearly 3,000 kilowatt hours over the same ton of paper made with virgin wood products.

A ton of soda cans made with recycled aluminum saves an amazing 21,000 kilowatt hours by reducing the virgin bauxite (bozite) ore that would have to be mined, shipped, and refined. That’s a 95% energy savings.

A ton of PET plastic containers made with recycled plastic conserves about 7,200 kilowatt hours.

The San Diego County Office of Education has figured out that recycling one glass bottle saves enough energy to light a 100 watt light bulb for four hours.