Recycling is the collection and processing of used products into materials that can be used to manufacture new products. Making newsprint from old newspapers, new glass bottles from used glass bottles and new cans from used beverage containers are examples of everyday recycling.
Recyclables can be collected at the curbside on a scheduled basis, such as once a week, or taken to a drop-off or buy-back center. Curbside collection is by far the most common way to collect recyclables from homes. Many businesses also have recycling programs in which separated paper and other materials are collected by the janitorial staff and placed in separate recycling containers at the building’s loading dock. In eleven states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan New York, Oregon, and Vermont), beverage container deposit programs encourage the return of those containers in order to regain the deposit that was paid when the beverage was purchased.
"MRFs" – material recovery facilities – have a wide array of equipment designed to sort and separate different kinds of recyclables and turn them into raw materials for manufacturers. Most MRFs process several different grades of paper, glass bottles, aluminum and steel cans and plastic containers.
In addition to recycling, organic wastes such as yard waste and food waste can be diverted from disposal. These materials, especially yard wastes, are commonly collected for composting at the curbside. Leaves and grass can also be placed into back yard piles for composting and grass can be left on the lawn after mowing and "grasscycled." Food waste composting is still in its infancy. However, programs in San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto are collecting food waste at the curbside and transporting them to composting facilities where the food waste is turned into a compost product.
According to EPA data release in 2010, 33.8 percent of our trash, or 82 million tons were recycled or composted in 2009. This represents a dramatic increase from 1960 when 5.6 million tons, or 6.4 percent was recycled.
Lead acid batteries have the highest recycling rate (99.2%) for a product in the waste stream while corrugated containers (often mistakenly called "cardboard boxes") have the highest recycling tonnage (22.9 million tons). Lead acid batteries have the highest rate because recycling them is very convenient. When someone takes a dead or dying auto battery to a store to buy a replacement, the store usually asks if the person wants the old battery back. Most people say no. The store keeps it and sells it. Similarly corrugated containers have a high recycling tonnage because they are a very prominent product in our economy, absolutely essential for shipping products, and because many large generators of corrugated boxes, such as warehouses, make money by selling the empty boxes to recycling markets. The addition of corrugated containers to many residential curbside programs has increased the recovery of these boxes.
Paper and paperboard products are the most recycled material in the waste stream by weight (42.5 million tons) followed by yard waste (19.9 million tons). For more information on solid waste generation and recycling rates, see the U.S. EPA's "Municipal Solid Waste In the United States: 2009: Facts and Figures."
When a recycling program is started, local solid waste management costs usually increase. New costs include buying recycling collection trucks and hiring labor, buying processing equipment and hiring sorters and technicians, and educational and publicity materials. Sometimes the overall solid waste management costs go down after a recycling program is thoroughly integrated into the local system. However, it is not unusual for the overall cost to remain higher with a recycling program. The good markets for recyclables, especially paper products, have helped the economics of municipal recycling programs. These markets were strong and stable for most of a four year period ending in November, 2008. Due to worldwide economic conditions, paper, plastic and metal martkets took a sudden and precipitous drop. Since then, prices have recovered slightly. In many ways, the market correction was inevitable as prices were unsustainably high.
Two Association studies provide valuable information into the costs of collecting and processing recyclables. "The Cost of Recycling at the Curb" provides a detailed accounting of the cost elements involved in collected recyclables at the curbside. The study includes important information in analyzing the variable costs of different levels of recycling collection, including crew and truck size. "The Cost to Recycle at a Materials Recovery Facility" uses data from ten operating MRFs to analyze the per ton cost of processing different types of recyclables including glass, PET and HDPE plastics, steel and aluminum cans and newspaper. The study includes average processing costs, cost factors, employee productivity and more.