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Recyclables are products or materials that can be separated from the waste stream and used again in place of raw materials. Since colonial times, Americans have recycled a host of materials, ranging from corn husks used for mattress stuffing to old clothes used for quilts. Today, household recyclables include newspapers, mixed waste paper, glass, tin, aluminum , steel, copper , plastics , batteries, yard debris, wood, and used oil. Commercial recyclables include scrap metals, concrete, plastics, corrugated cardboard, and other nonferrous scrap material. The list of recyclables will likely expand as technology meets a growing demand for more recycling in response to increased consumer awareness and waste disposal costs, dwindling landfill space, and more stringent waste management regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has emphasized the importance of diverting recyclables from the waste stream by endorsing integrated waste management, in which municipal solid waste is managed according to a hierarchy of source reduction, recycling, solid waste incineration , and landfilling.

Programs to divert household recyclables from the waste stream are typically developed and implemented at the local or community level, while commercial recyclables are usually collected by private industry. Collection and preparation methods vary among recycling programs. Some communities have implemented curbside collection programs that require households to separate recyclables from their waste and sort them into segregated containers. Other curbside collection programs pick up recyclables separated from household waste but commingled together. Still other communities are responsible for picking out recyclables mixed in the waste stream. In some municipalities, recyclables are sorted and prepared for processing or market at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Most MRFs rely on workers to hand-sort recyclables, though some also use sorting equipment, including magnets for removing metals and blowers for sorting plastics. Plastics are also hand-sorted according to resins identified by a voluntary coding system consisting of a triangular arrow stamp with a number in the center and letters underneath that identify the seven major types of plastic resins used in containers. Other equipment exists for size reduction (shredding or grinding), weighing, and baling recyclables.

Increasing both the type and quantity of recyclables are goals of many states. In 1999, recycling (including composting ) diverted 64 million tons of material away from landfills and incinerators. That's nearly double the amount diverted in 1990 of 34 million tons. Batteries had the highest recovery rate of any recyclable; almost 97% of all batteries were recycled. Slightly more than 41% of all paper and paperboard products were recycled and almost 40% of all plastic drink containers made their way to recycling centers, a major improvement over the last decade or so. An estimated 27% of glass was recovered from the waste stream. Approximately 54% of aluminum packaging was recovered for recycling. Recyclables also exist in the form of durable goods, which are products that have a lifetime of over three years. These are usually bulky items, such as major appliances, which are not mixed with the rest of the waste stream. Ferrous metals can be recycled from refrigerators, washing machines, and other major appliances, known as "white goods."

Recyclables are commodities, and markets for these commodities fluctuate dramatically. The dynamic nature of markets is a key factor in whether a recyclable is actually recycled instead of being disposed in a landfill or combusted in an incinerator. Municipalities involved in recycling programs must deal with rapid shifts in the market for recyclables. For example, the demand for a particular recyclable may drop, reducing the price and forcing the municipality to pay for the material to be taken away for recycling or disposal. Consequently, recycling must compete with raw material markets, as well as waste disposal methods.

An additional advantage of recycling is that it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions can impact the earth's climate . In 1996, it was estimated that recycling of solid waste in the United States alone may have prevented the release of 33 million tons of carbon into the air, about the same amount as emitted by 25 million cars in one year.

See also Garbage; Green packaging; Municipal solid waste; Solid waste incineration; Waste reduction

[Marci L. Bortman ]



Pollock, C. S. "Building a Market for Recyclables." World Watch 1 (MayJune 1988): 1218.


"Basic Facts, Municipal Solid Waste" U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. [cited July 8, 2002]. <>.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1990 Update. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.

U.S. Office of Technology Assessment. 1989. Facing America's Trash: What Next for Municipal Solid. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.