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About Recycling

Excerpts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website

Recycling is one of the best environmental success stories of the late 20th century. Recycling, which includes composting, diverted over 72 million tons of material away from landfills and incinerators in 2003, up from 34 million tons in 1990 -- doubling in just 10 years. Recycling turns materials that would otherwise become waste into valuable resources. As a matter of fact, collecting recyclable materials is just the first step in a series of actions that generate a host of financial, environmental, and societal returns. There are several key benefits to recycling.

  • Protects and expands US manufacturing jobs and increases US competitiveness in the global marketplace.
  • Reduces the need for landfilling and incineration.
  • Saves energy and prevents pollution caused by the extraction and processing of virgin materials and the manufacture of products using virgin materials.
  • Decreases emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change.
  • Conserves natural resources such as timber, water, and minerals.
  • Helps sustain the environment for future generations.

Learn more about the benefits of recycling

Recycling not only makes sense from an environmental standpoint, but also makes good financial sense. For example, creating aluminum cans from recycled aluminum is far less energy-intensive, and less costly, than mining the raw materials and manufacturing new cans from scratch. Because recycling is clearly good for human health, the nation's economy, and the environment, many people wonder why the federal government does not simply mandate recycling. The primary reason is that recycling is a local issue: the success and viability of recycling depends on a community's resources and structure. A community must consider the costs of a recycling program, as well as the availability of markets for its recovered materials. In some areas, not enough resources exist to make recycling an economically feasible option. State governments can assess local conditions and set appropriate recycling mandates. For information about recycling in your state, contact your EPA regional office, or your state agency.

If there is plenty of landfill space, then why should I recycle?

Recycling offers a host of environmental, economic, and societal benefits (see Question "Is Recycling Worthwhile?"). While landfill space is plentiful on the national level, some areas of the United States, particularly the heavily populated East Coast, have less landfill capacity and higher landfill costs. Communities can make money and avoid high disposal costs by selling certain recyclable materials. Markets for recovered materials fluctuate however, as markets do for all commodities -- depending on a variety of economic conditions. Find more information on the value of recovered materials . A report released by the National Recycling Coalition at the end of 2001 offers perhaps the most compelling evidence of how and why recycling makes good economic sense. Simply put, recycling creates jobs and generates valuable revenue for the United States. According to The U.S. Recycling Economic Information Study, more than 56,000 recycling and reuse establishments in the United States employ approximately 1.1 million people, generate an annual payroll of $37 billion, and gross $236 billion in annual revenues. According to the report, the number of workers in the recycling industry is comparable to the automobile and truck manufacturing industry and is significantly larger than mining and waste management and disposal industries. In addition, wages for workers in the recycling industry are notably higher than the national average for all industries, according to the report. For additional information on the economic impact of recycling, visit EPA's Jobs Through Recycling Web site.

How does recycling save energy?

Harvesting, extracting, and processing the raw materials used to manufacture new products is an energy-intensive activity. Reducing or nearly eliminating the need for these processes, therefore, achieves huge savings in energy. Recycling aluminum cans, for example, saves 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source, bauxite. The amount of energy saved differs by material, but almost all recycling processes achieve significant energy savings compared to production using virgin materials. In 2000, recycling resulted in an annual energy savings of at least 660 trillion BTUs, which equals the amount of energy used in 6 million households annually. In 2005, recycling is conservatively projected to save 900 trillion BTUs, equal to the annual energy use of 9 million households. For more information on recycling and energy reduction, check out the EPA brochure Puzzled About Recycling's Value? Look Beyond the Bin (PDF) (16 pp, 317K, about PDF). A white paper on the energy benefits of waste management is available at EPA's Climate and Waste Web site, under the "Publications" link.

What effects do waste prevention and recycling have on global warming?

Everyone knows that reducing waste is good for the environment because it conserves natural resources. What many people don't know is that solid waste reduction and recycling also have an impact on global climate change. The manufacture, distribution, and use of products -- as well as management of the resulting waste -- all result in greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the upper atmosphere, occur naturally and help create climates that sustain life on our planet. Increased concentrations of these gases can contribute to rising global temperatures, sea level changes, and other climate changes. Waste prevention and recycling -- jointly referred to as waste reduction -- help us better manage the solid waste we generate. But reducing waste is a potent strategy for reducing greenhouse gases because it can: Reduce emissions from energy consumption. Recycling saves energy. Manufacturing goods from recycled materials typically requires less energy than producing goods from virgin materials. When people reuse goods or when products are made with less material, less energy is needed to extract, transport, and process raw materials and to manufacture products. When energy demand decreases, fewer fossil fuels are burned and less carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere. Reduce emissions from incinerators. Recycling and waste prevention divert materials from incinerators and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions from waste combustion. Reduce methane emissions from landfills. Waste prevention and recycling (including composting) divert organic wastes from landfills, reducing the methane that would be released if these materials decomposed in a landfill.

Increase storage of carbon in forests. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in wood in a process called "carbon sequestration." Waste prevention and recycling paper products allows more trees to remain standing in the forest, where they can continue to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For more information about the relationship between solid waste and climate change, go to EPA's Climate Change & Waste page.

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