Recycling is the process of collecting waste products and then sorting and reprocessing them into new products for resale. The most commonly recycled products are paper, metal, plastic, and glass. Technological improvements allow some materials, such as glass, to be recycled more than once.

The average American throws away more than seven pounds of garbage daily.

Trash in the United States consists of about 39% paper, 18% yard debris, 8% metal, 8% plastics, 7% glass, 7% food waste, and 14% other nonrecyclable materials. These waste products must go to landfills or incinerators, or be recycled for disposal, depending on the type and condition of the material. Of the waste collected in the United States, 67% goes to landfills, 16% is recycled, and 16% is incinerated.

Recycling saves energy compared to the cost of manufacturing raw materials. For example, recycling glass prevents the need to mine for sand and limestone. Recycling conserves rapidly diminishing landfill space. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2000, recycling prevented 32.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. Water pollution is decreased by recycling, as less water is needed to manufacture glass, plastic, metal, etc.

Toxic heavy metals are being used less frequently in products and therefore are less of a waste-disposal problem. Using recycled materials decreases the demand for raw materials, thereby lessening the damage to wildlife and environmental sites from logging, mining, and excavating.

A Nature Conservancy poll recently found that 53% of Americans recycle. Thirty-nine percent use reusable bags instead of paper or plastic bags to carry their purchases.

On average, the United States uses 60 million tons of paper per year, with 37% of that paper being recycled. One million tons of recovered paper would fill 14,000 railroad cars.

The number of communities that collect recyclable items curbside increased by 500% in the last five years, according to the EPA, with more than 20% of their total waste amount collected.

According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, it takes 1.5 million barrels of oil to produce one year's supply of plastic containers for bottled water. Plastic waste composes 10-20% of landfill space. Plastic bottles take 700 years to begin to decompose in a landfill. Even now, eight out of 10 plastic water bottles are not recycled.

The Bottle Bill was first passed in Oregon in 1971, and now 11 states have laws regulating container deposit fees, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. Managed independently according to state law, the bill allows customers to purchase a product in a glass or plastic container for an additional fee, which is totally or partially refunded when the bottle is returned. Deposits range from 2-10 cents per bottle. Profits made when a bottle is not returned can be retained by the distributor, the bottler, the retailer, or the state, according to the state's mandate. Vermont has the highest deposit fee, 15 cents, required on liquor containers greater than 50 milliliters. Since 70% of containers are returned in Bottle Bill states, their taxpayers pay less for pickup, landfill disposal, and litter control.

According to the National Recycling Coalition, recycling in the United States is a $236- billion-a-year industry, employing more than 1.1 million workers. Many communities have discovered that recycling can become a major source of employment at all levels of expertise. In Washington State, from 1989 to 1992, more than 2,050 jobs that were directly tied to recycling were created.

On October 20, 1993, former President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12873, the Solid Waste Disposal Act. Its purpose was to initiate more efficient use of natural resources by the federal government and mandated both office recycling and the acquisition of recycled products for and by governmental agencies.

Electronics manufacturers are actively involved in recycling, reusing, and collecting old electronics. American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), Dell, Hewlett Packard (HP), Intel, Lexmark, Motorola, NEC Display Solutions, Nokia, Palm, Panasonic, Philips, Sharp, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, and Toshiba are some of the companies that have partnered with the EPA to responsibly deal with electronics waste. There is currently no American legislation that prevents a manufacturer from shipping its electronics waste to other countries. As a result, parts of Africa and Asia have become specialized centers for electronics recycling.

As interest in conserving resources and extending the life of landfills has increased, organizations have been created to assist manufacturers and consumers. The National Recycling Coalition was formed more than 30 years ago to improve and advance recycling, waste prevention, composting, and natural resource reuse. It now has more than 5,500 members, with 20 state recycling organizations.

Waste management has become an international concern. The European Union members, Australia, and the United States have led the move toward waste management since the 1970s. Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, are the newest countries to begin stringent recycling programs.


General: Recycling starts with collecting materials for reuse. This step varies depending on the region, state law, and local participation. Collection may involve curbside pickup by a contracted collection agency, drop-off centers where consumers bring their waste items, buy-back centers where items can be sold to collection agencies, and/or state-run deposit/refund programs.

Recovery companies are located at many plants throughout the United States. The recycling process can be as simple as an independent scrap-metal company selling directly to a manufacturing company or as complex as a large material recovery plant brokering goods as commodities (such as industrial-grade copper) that are sold as bulk material on the open market. Collected materials are sent to a material recovery company where they are cleaned, sorted, and prepared into a form appropriate for the next stage of manufacturing.

Recovery plants that purchase recyclables are called vendors. Vendors may sell directly to manufacturers at the national and international levels. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), vendors are allowed to set the quality requirements that the collection agencies must follow in order to sell their material.

The value of recycled materials depends on how they will be used and what the manufacturer pays for new, unused materials. The Chicago Board of Trade Recycling Partnership functions as a commodity exchange board of trade for the purchase and sale of recycled goods. This allows an established nationwide place of sale, quality control, and price stabilization.

Recycled materials are frequently manufactured into everyday items, such as newspapers, paper towels, aluminum, glass or plastic containers, road asphalt, carpeting, benches, and even pedestrian bridges.

Products made from recycled materials are labeled as such and made available to consumers. These products can be identified by the three bent arrows (recycled logo) found on the bottom or label of the item. The logo's three arrows represent the collection, manufacture, and purchase phases of the recycling process.

International recycling efforts :

Japan: Japan, which has a population of about 126 million people, generates 50 million tons of waste, with less than 10 years left of landfill space remaining. Japan also imports most of its copper, zinc, lead, iron, aluminum, and nickel used in manufacturing consumer products. In order to manage this imbalance between natural resources and waste, voluntary curbside recycling of glass, steel, aluminum, and newspaper has been instituted. As of 2000, the Law for the Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging went into effect, making waste management of paper and plastic containers the responsibility of consumers, towns, manufacturers, bottlers, and importers. The government sets the rate of payment for each type of return based on the industrial sector's rate scale. For example, clear glass is paid a higher return payment rate than brown or green glass. As a result, some Japanese industries have banded together in formal associations that then handle the recycling of their waste. The largest of these associations, the Japan Containers and Package Recycling Association, anticipates they will soon have 200,000 members.

Japan has also initiated the Specified Household Appliances Recycling Law, which requires retailers and local governments to accept old appliances from consumers for a nominal fee. This has prompted manufacturers to invest in appliance-recycling plants.

Some companies have elected to modify their manufacturing approach in order to reduce electronics waste. In Japan, Panasonic has moved to reduce the number of components and the amount of plastic in its televisions in order to help with its recycling issues.

Korea: In Korea, a consumer movement away from durable products, such as refillable glass milk bottles, to disposables has increased the pressure on landfills. Adding landfill sites in Korea is hampered by its mountainous environment, densely populated urban areas, and limited uninhabited land.

Korea instituted a deposit-refund bottle system in 1992. Producers and importers pay the bottle deposit fees into a governmental account that funds environmental projects. According to the Ministry of the Environment, the companies are then reimbursed for their waste management. However, they found that the refund was not enough to entice the manufacturers to collect and treat their waste. The Korean government has stated that they plan to increase the required deposit amount.

Korea also passed a law to restrict disposable goods. As a result, restaurant and cafeterias are prohibited from using disposable cups, containers, wooden chopsticks, toothpicks, or disposable cutlery. Department stores and shopping centers can no longer provide free plastic bags or shopping bags or use advertising media that is coated with synthetic resins. Food manufacturing and processors cannot use disposable "doggie bag" lunch boxes. Hotels and public baths no longer provide disposable shaving equipment, toothpaste, shampoo, or hair conditioner. The government also limits the amount of layers of packaging placed on various items such as food, clothing, gift sets, cosmetics, and over-the-counter medications.

Taiwan: Taiwan is densely populated and has limited space for waste disposal. Taiwan has experimented with deposit-return systems, government-instituted mandatory return policies, and mandatory environmental labeling. The deposit-return bottle policy was so successful that the refunding of the deposit money resulted in the managing account to be overdrawn. The government is considering dropping the refund completely because of the program's cost.

European Union: As of 1994, the European Union member states are required to recapture at least 50% of all plastic materials and recycle at least 25% of that waste. Since then, the packaging directive has been under attack by various member nations due to lack of understanding of the industry. Austria routinely recycles the most plastic, with Germany just behind.

In 1999, India outlawed plastic bags less than 20-microns thick. However, the law has not been strictly enforced.

China: In China, the government has banned the use or manufacture of white foam polystyrene disposable food containers since 2000.

Philippines: Recently, the Philippines signed the Solid Waste Management Act, which includes a ban on various kinds of disposable packaging.

Nepal: In Nepal, plastic waste is at the forefront of governmental concern. In 2000, plastic bags and bottles were banned in many of the regions.

United States :

Paper: The largest component of American waste is paper. Thirty-seven percent of paper is recovered for recycling, making it the largest amount of reused waste material.

The American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA) has set a goal of recovering at least 60% of all paper by the end of 2012 through the independent efforts of its member companies. The AFPA has launched an educational waste-management program for the corporate environment in order to recapture the waste paper generated from that source.

Paper recycling starts with paper being collected and then sorted into either high-grade paper or mixed-collectible paper categories. High-grade paper consists of standard white paper, such as copier or printer paper, stationery, or notepaper. Mixed collectible paper includes all other paper, such as colored paper, paper grocery bags, newspaper, file folders, manila envelopes, paperback books, catalogs, and advertising print.

Once the papers are sorted and nonpaper items are removed, they are compacted into large bales and distributed to paper mills. At the mills, the paper is shredded and mixed with water to make a workable pulp. This pulp is washed and cleaned in a large beater. It can then be handled as if it were raw material and made into various grades and colors of paper products.

Cardboard is easily recyclable and is routinely included in domestic and industrial pickup programs. Recycling cardboard has the added benefit of reducing the volume of trash deposited in landfills. To be accepted by many collection agencies, cardboard must be free of interior items, flattened, and banded together.

Eighty percent of American paper mills now use some recaptured paper material in their new paper or cardboard products

While paper is easily recycled, each time it is recycled, the fibers degenerate and lose strength. For this reason, paper-recycling experts say that paper has only a seven-generation life. After being recycled seven times, the paper product can no longer be used by current manufacturing technology. Paper mills are experimenting with new ways to extend the life of recycled paper by mixing it with varying amounts of new paper.

In order to decrease the environmental impact on forest lands, the paper industry reports planting an average of 1.7 million trees daily, or five trees for every tree harvested. According to industry statistics, the amount of standing forest timber in the United States has increased by nearly 40% over the past 50 years, with an estimated 10 million acres of new trees since 1990.

Glass: With modern technology, glass containers are one of the easiest wastes to recycle. Current methods can recapture 100% of the materials used in making the original bottle or container and can be endlessly recycled.

About 80% of recovered glass is made into new containers. In 2007, the EPA estimated that 34.5% of beer and soft drink bottles and 28.1% of all glass containers contained recycled material.

California leads the country in glass recycling with a 79% recapture rate. In January 2008, North Carolina became the first state to require bars and restaurants to recycle glass containers.

According to the Glass Packaging Institute, a trade association that represents the North American glass-container industry, a glass-recycling plant can recycle up to 20 tons of glass an hour.

Without having to replenish new raw materials for glass production, natural resources are protected from extended mining. For every ton of glass that is recycled, one ton of raw materials is saved. This includes sand, soda ash, and limestone, which are the major components in all glass types.

Glass recycling is based on the color of the glass: clear, blue, brown, and green. There is a larger consumer market for clear glass than for the other colors. During the processing of clear glass, iron oxide is separated from the sand so that no color is seen. Colorless glass can be used to make a wide variety of containers, including food, cosmetics, beer, and liquor containers. It is also used in granite-like countertops and floors, kitchen tile, insulation, and road-paving material.

Green glass is frequently used in beverage containers such as those for wine, bottled water, and beer. Brown or amber glass is made from a mixture of sand, soda ash, limestone, and either iron or sulfur for color. Brown glass is most often used in drink and medicine containers. The tint of the glass prevents the contents from being negatively impacted by light. Not all recycling centers will accept brown or green glass due to the lesser industrial demand for these colors.

Blue glass is caused by iron contained in the glass. Manufacturers add cobalt oxide to make the blue darker and more intense. Blue glass is frequently used in makeup containers, medication bottles, bottled-water containers, and some wine bottles.

The first step in recycling glass is separating the waste by color to prevent color contamination of the new-glass product. Some recycling agencies do not accept any colored glass. Consumers must remove any lids, caps, or metal rings from the glass bottles. Containers should be rinsed clean. Labels do not need to be removed.

Glass products such as lightbulbs, window glass, dishes, crystal, mirrors, and Pyrex© are not recyclable as they contain hazardous chemical additives.

Once the glass is sorted and cleaned, it is crushed and transported to manufacturers that melt it into its finished product. Some newer plants have added optical sorting machines and ceramic detection equipment in an attempt to decrease the time and costs associated with glass recycling.

Glass can be reprocessed from curbside pickup and returned back to retail shelves in 30 days.

Plastic: The specific type of plastic used in American products varies according to the end product's use.

In plastics recycling, a number is included in the center of the three-arrows logo to determine its composition and value in recycling. The number indicates the type of plastic resin used to make the object. Number 1 indicates the container is made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which makes up only 2.3% of all plastics and is found most commonly in polyester fibers, plastic sheeting, strapping, microwave trays, water bottles, and soft drink bottles. Number 2 indicates the product is made of high-density polyethylene, which makes up 14.6% of all plastics and is used in milk bottles, grocery bags, recycling bins, pipes, base cups, and playground materials. Number 3, polyvinyl chloride, makes up 14.5% of all plastics and is used in plastic food wrap, loose-leaf binders, pipe, fencing, and nonfood containers. Number 4 is low-density polyethylene, the most frequently used plastic, which makes up 18.3% of all plastics and is used in plastic dry cleaning and produce bags, containers, bottles, wash bottles, tubing, and laboratory items. Number 5 is polypropylene, making up 13.2% of all plastics, and is used in auto parts, medicine bottles, industrial fibers, and food containers such as those for yogurt. Number 6 is polystyrene, which makes up 7.8% of all plastics and is used in compact disc holders, trays, toys, insulation board, Tupperware©, and Styrofoam©. Number 7 is polycarbonate plastic, used in Nalgene© bottles, CDs, DVDs, automobiles, and medical devices.

The average American family accumulates 17 pounds of PET bottles each year. Five PET bottles can be recycled into one extra-large T-shirt or one square foot of carpeting. Twenty-five bottles can make one sweater. Five two-liter bottles can insulate a ski jacket, and 35 bottles are enough for a sleeping bag.

Products such as plastic drink containers, shopping bags, and pipes can be recycled, but Styrofoam© and other hard plastics may not be accepted by curbside pickup agencies.

In the United States, recovery rates for the various types of plastics differ: polyethylene terephthalate items are recovered at a 50% rate, while high-density polyethylene items are recovered at a 30% rate.

According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, it takes 1.5 million barrels of oil to produce one year's supply of plastic containers for bottled water. Plastic waste composes 10-20% of landfill waste. Once in a landfill, plastic bottles take about 700 years to begin to decompose. Even now, eight of 10 plastic water bottles are not recycled.

The process of recycling plastics begins with the collection and sorting of the plastics into the seven types. Until recently, plastic was sorted by hand, making the recycling costs higher than for other materials. During sorting, any contaminated items are rejected. The bottles are then broken down into flakes or pellets by either a physical or chemical solvent process.

Some plastics, such as PVC, cannot be recycled. In fact, the environmental impact of PVC is expected to increase. The average life span of a PVC product, especially those used in construction, is 34 years. Those products made in the 1960s are now beginning to enter landfills. In 2005, it was estimated that more than 300 million tons of PVC was discarded globally. PVC cannot be safely incinerated due to the release of elements classified by the EPA as hazardous into the atmosphere.

Countries such as Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States have begun to consider recycling limitations on PVC. As a result, governmental lobbyists for the PVC industry have begun efforts to encourage incineration for disposal in Western Europe and Japan, and landfill use for disposal in the United States and Australia. Yet countries in Latin America and Asia are increasingly using PVC in their building expansions. According to the Indonesian government, 40% of plastic waste in that country was imported but not recycled and required traditional disposal methods. According to the Swedish Chemical Committee, PVC has been classified as a substance to be phased out for all uses. Switzerland has banned PVC in drinking bottles since 1991.

A disadvantage of plastics recycling is that there is only a single reuse of the material. Unlike glass, recycled plastic bottles cannot be reused for food or beverage containers. Its reuse is restricted to plastic lumber, recycling bins, and toys due to the high level of contaminants found in the recycled-waste product. Currently only about 3.5% of all plastics can be recycled due to this problem. For example, if one PVC bottle is melted into 10,000 PET bottles, the entire mixture must be destroyed.

Plastics are usually made from petroleum or natural gas, and when burned they can create almost the same level of energy as fuel oil. Research into environmentally safe burning of plastics may provide an alternative energy option in the future.

Metals: Steel recycling is a major component of the recycling industry. Almost 100 million steel cans are used daily in the United States. The largest source of recycled steel is handled through scrap-metal dealers.

More than 65% of steel produced in the United States today is recycled. Recycled steel is found in appliances, bridges, cars, trucks, desks, file cabinets, fire hydrants, guard rails, utility poles, railroad tracks, and even horse shoes. A typical American appliance has nearly 75% recycled steel in its construction.

Steel does not lose its quality during the recycling process, an important element when used in bridges or building support structures.

The steel-recycling process usually begins by separating it from other metals using large magnets. Any tin coating on the steel is removed. The steel is then put into a furnace, where it is melted down into a liquid and poured into a cast or mold. The steel is then rolled into flat sheets and formed into the finished product.

According to the Steel Recycling Institute, one ton of recycled steel can save 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone.

Aluminum is another metal that can be recycled repeatedly and is the most frequently recycled item in the United States in the form of beverage cans. In addition, consumer products such as foil, siding, gutters, car parts, window frames, and lawn furniture can be made from other recycled aluminum. Aluminum recycling has become a reliable income source for many communities and organizations.

While most Americans recycle aluminum cans, recycling of aluminum foil is less efficient. While still 100% recyclable, aluminum foil must be clean in order to be reused. Therefore, it is not accepted by all recycling centers. According to the Aluminum Industry, it takes nearly 400 years for aluminum foil to break down in a landfill. Some recycling firms destroy aluminum foil through incineration; however, concern has grown over the release of toxic metals and gases into the air with that process.

Aluminum recycling begins when it is gathered from local sites and collected in large, regional scrap companies. It is then compacted into bales and shipped to aluminum companies, where it is shredded into small pieces, placed into melting furnaces, and mixed with virgin aluminum. The molten product is then poured into long bars that can weigh up to 30,000 pounds. These bars are rolled into thin strips. The strips are coiled and transported to can manufacturers. Manufactured cans are shipped to beverage manufacturers for filling. Aluminum cans can be recycled and returned to retail shelves in 60 days.

The Aluminum for Future Generations Initiative is a program developed by the International Aluminum Institute. Its voluntary goals to be met by member companies by 2010 include an 80% reduction in perfluorocarbon greenhouse gas emissions, a 33% reduction in fluoride emissions, a 10% reduction in smelting energy use, a reduction of fresh-water industrial usage, a 50% reduction in the accident rate for industry workers, implementation of health and safety measures and employee exposure assessments/ surveillance programs, and an increase in the proportion of mining land rehabilitation. The member companies report on their recycling performance and investigate options for reuse of manufacturing by-products, such as from cement, steel, mineral wool, or construction. Members follow procedures for the appropriate and safe securement of unused by-products until disposal.

Electronics: The United States does not have a comprehensive industry to manage electronics recycling. Currently, most electronics waste from the United States is shipped out of the country for disposal. Nigeria has an active electronics-repair market, accepting old electronics equipment from all over the world, but has not built facilities or protocols for safe waste management. Large piles of old electronics equipment such as monitors, CPUs, cell phones, and televisions are thrown into swamps, landfills, and burning pits.

The severity of the problem is hard to estimate, as there is no regulation in the global e-waste trade. Tariff regulations, which set fees for export items, do not classify or regulate waste electronics. Only a few items, such as new batteries, computer monitors, and television sets, are assigned a U.S. code for export. Experts, however, estimate that 500 shipping containers loaded with e-waste pass each month through Lago, Africa's largest port. Since there is a viable market for reassembling parts from scrap electronics parts, Nigeria accepts waste electronics from other countries to salvage those parts that are still functional.

Asia is another area with a growing industry in e-waste. Asian importers sell working cathode ray tubes, containing more than four pounds of lead each, to computer manufacturing companies for a substantial profit. This waste-recapture industry is staffed primarily with women and children, who work with lead solder, toxic acids, and other hazardous materials as they remove precious metals from the waste. Copper is one metal that can be lucratively recycled from electronics trash.

It has been shown that e-waste landfills may contaminate surrounding soil and water with lead, cadmium, and mercury. The plastic contained in a computer's housing has been shown to emit cancer-causing dioxins and polyaromatic hydrocarbons when burned.

The Basel Convention, an international treaty drafted in the 1989, attempted to prevent e-wastes and other hazardous wastes from being transported to developing countries for dumping. Exported wastes that are intended for recycling are still allowed under the treaty.

In the United States, e-waste exports are illegal only within the jurisdiction of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which prohibits waste disposal overseas. However, if the materials are labeled as bound for a recycling center, U.S. companies can legally send e-wastes to any overseas location.

In 2003, the EPA began their Plug-In To eCycling program, which encourages safe domestic recycling of electronics equipment by consumers and manufacturers. This effort was in response to data showing that e-waste is the fastest-growing material in municipal waste-management systems.

Electronics manufacturers are becoming actively involved in recycling, reusing, and collecting old electronics. Panasonic has moved to reduce the number of components and the amount of plastic in its televisions in order to help with their recycling.

While individual manufacturers use their own goals in electronics recycling, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), Dell, Hewlett Packard (HP), Intel, Lexmark, Motorola, NEC Display Solutions, Nokia, Palm, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony Ericsson, and Toshiba are some of the companies that have partnered with the EPA to responsibly deal with electronics waste. Incentive plans and recycling local events are some of the approaches used in conjunction with EPA support.


General: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the national American average yearly garbage rate could create a line of garbage trucks that extends from this planet halfway to the moon.

American trash consists of about 39% paper, 18% yard debris, 8% metal, 8% plastics, 7% glass, 7% food waste, and 14% other nonrecyclable materials. These materials must go to a landfill or an incinerator, or be recycled for disposal. Of the waste that is collected in the United States, 67% goes to landfills, 16% is recycled, and 16% is incinerated.

While some incinerator plants recapture the energy released in the burning of trash, landfills are still needed to dispose of the ash. Building incinerators is costly and difficult to properly locate in a community due to residential zoning restrictions and neighborhood objections.

Potential benefits of recycling: Recycling reduces the need for landfill space and incineration. It allows the conservation of raw natural resources by reusing materials. It decreases the energy consumption and pollution by greenhouse gases during the manufacturing process of raw materials. It provides new sources of jobs and products. It allows communities a way to be paid for their wastes.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ISLR) conducted a study on the impact of recycling versus landfill expenses. They found that for an area supporting one million residents, a newspaper recycling mill that processes 100,000 tons a year could add $57 million to that city's tax base. The cost of landfill disposal for that same amount of newsprint would cost the city about $4 million.

As technological improvements in the processing of materials occur, more of the initial material can be reused many times. Glass and paper are the most adaptive, and experts state that almost all its materials can be recaptured for reuse, thereby saving our environment.

Potential drawbacks of recycling: The process of collecting, sorting, and preparing for remanufacturing presents a substantial cost for start-up recycling agencies. Existing traditional raw-material manufacturing equipment must be modified to handle recycled materials.

The cleaning and sorting process for plastics and glass is costly because it is labor-intensive.

Recycling plastics is problematic as the items are light and unbreakable, making their transportation expensive. Plastics may contain coloring, preventing their reuse. Previously unused plastic is currently inexpensive, thereby creating a greater demand for new plastic than recycled plastic. The solvents used in recycling plastics release toxins into the atmosphere.

Efforts to use deposit-refund systems have failed to motivate many national and international bottle companies to collect and dispose of their bottles because the cost of manufacturing new bottles is less costly than forfeiting the deposit money and recycling the old.

As countries have become more adept at collecting and processing waste materials, experts realize the need for balance among the three stages of recycling. The collection, manufacture of new goods, and purchase of these new products have to support one another in order for the system to function. Currently, the collection and preparation of the materials exceed the level of consumer purchase.


General: The health risk associated with the recycling industry is equivalent regardless of its geographical location. American and international data show similar health and safety risks among the industry's workers.

Paper recycling: According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the paper industry has been linked with human cancer-causing compounds (carcinogens) resulting from occupational exposure. According to the NIH data, the paper industry shows a higher incidence of cancer in the nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses, and lungs.

While the paper manufacturing industry has been cautious about acknowledging the incidence of cancer among its employees, the Cancer Registry of Norway's Institute of Epidemiological Cancer Research has suggested a significant level of malignant melanoma among long- and short-term employees.

Similarly, the Danish Cancer Society published a review of several studies that suggested an increased cancer risk among paper mill workers. Within the cancers found among the 14,362 paper mill workers studied, Hodgkin's disease, soft tissue sarcomas, and pharyngeal cancer were the predominate forms. These results prompted a Danish study of paper-recycling plants where 5,377 employees in five paper-recycling plants were followed from their employment dates, ranging from 1965-1990. That study confirmed a similar excess risk of Hodgkin's disease among those workers; however, the study was unable to confirm a link to pharyngeal cancer, as the results could have been influenced by alcohol and alcohol intake. The authors of that study have recommended further investigations.

Glass recycling: The Glass Packaging Institute, which represents companies that use glass packaging, promotes the use of glass as the only packaging container the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized as safe.

The most significant health and safety threat in the glass-recycling industry is connected to puncture, abrasion, or laceration wounds resulting from glass handling. Inherent in puncture injury is the potential exposure to tetanus, which manifests as exaggerated reflexes, muscle rigidity, and uncontrollable muscle spasms, particularly of the jaw.

Various viruses can also be acquired through glass-inflicted skin wounds, such as hepatitis B. Hepatitis B may cause acute inflammation of the liver, which can be life-threatening.

Employee health initiatives have stressed the need for current preventive vaccination of workers for tetanus and hepatitis.

Plastics recycling: The incineration of plastic, while creating energy almost equal to fuel oil, also creates hazardous gases, including hydrogen chloride, dioxin, cadmium, and airborne fine particle matter.

Cancer-incidence research in the Danish plastics industry found increased rates of disease of the lymphatic and blood-generating tissues. Exposure to styrene used in the manufacture and recycling of plastics is believed to be the causative agent. Some support was also found for an increased risk of respiratory cancers. Further studies are being conducted.

In the United States, concern has been raised over the levels of airborne dioxin exposure caused by the burning of medical wastes and of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in particular. Dioxins are classified as extremely potent toxic substances, producing negative effects, even in low doses. Numerous research studies suggest that these compounds are now found worldwide and may be passed to infants during breast-feeding.

The incineration of plastic is also involved in the release of formaldehyde. Workers exposed to large levels of formaldehyde have been shown to have a higher risk of leukemia.

Additional exposure to chloromethyl ether and technical-grade methyl ether, as a result of plastics manufacturing, has been linked to oat-cell lung cancer.

As stricter emission standards are enacted, the incineration of plastic may no longer be a viable manufacturing process.

In Europe and Japan, limitations in landfill space have encouraged research into environmentally safe biodegradable plastic bottles.

Metal recycling: Recently, medical concern has been expressed over the increased rate of blood levels of lead and cadmium, disease, and cancer in children living close to battery-recycling centers.

Nickel-cadmium battery-recycling centers have been linked to elevated blood levels of cadmium in humans living nearby. Inhalation of cadmium dust can quickly cause respiratory and kidney disorders, some life-threatening. Ingesting even a small amount of cadmium may cause immediate damage to the liver and kidneys. Exposure to cadmium can be confirmed by testing the blood and urine for elevated levels of creatinine.

The cause of death of 869 Swedish battery workers exposed to nickel hydroxide and cadmium oxide was completed in 1992. As of December 1992, a significantly increased incidence of cancer of the lungs, nose, and nasal sinuses was found.

As there is no effective current treatment for cadmium poisoning, preventing exposure is the only option. Consumers should be instructed on how to properly dispose of nickel-cadmium batteries according to local regulations.

Soil contamination by lead was found in one study of children living near a Los Angeles County battery-recycling facility leading to the testing and treatment of those children. Lead toxicity has been linked with the battery manufacturing and recycling industry. Lead poisoning can cause serious and lifelong health problems, affecting almost every organ in the body. In adults, lead levels can accumulate in both blood and bone, causing a rise in blood pressure and an increased risk of stroke, kidney damage, miscarriages, and premature births. Animal studies have also shown a potential risk of brain cancer. Effects on children include lower IQs, memory problems, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, hearing loss, slow reflexes, muscle weakness, hypertension, abdominal pain, vomiting, weight loss, anemia, kidney problems, seizures, and coma.

In Managua, Nicaragua, increased blood lead levels in the area's residents led to the closing of a battery factory when elevated lead levels were found in both local soil and water samples.

In Guiyu, China, primitive recycling methods are blamed for 226 children younger than age six having significantly higher blood lead levels than those in a neighboring town. Frequently, in simple recycling centers, batteries are stockpiled in open areas, subject to wind and rain, where toxic lead levels can seep into soil and water used by local residents.

In the Dominican Republic, 146 children who lived near an auto-battery-recycling smelting plant had higher lead levels than did the blood of children who lived four miles away. The researchers found that 28% of the children needed immediate treatment for lead poisoning. In all of these cases, investigations are focusing on the source of the lead and any connection with toxic airborne emissions or water pollution.

Due to lead's cumulative toxicity, it is unclear at what level of exposure damage begins to occur. Many experts take an "any exposure is dangerous" position, while others set 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood as the cut-off point for when blood lead levels should be monitored. Removal from the area of exposure is still the best medical intervention.

In the aluminum and steel recycling industry, research is being done to determine if these workers have the same increased incidence of lung and colon cancer as do workers in the steel and iron manufacturing plants. Further research is needed.

Electronics recycling: Nigeria has an active electronics-repair market, accepting old electronics equipment from all over the world, but it has not built facilities or protocols for safe waste management. Large piles of old electronics equipment, such as computer monitors, CPUs, cell phones, and televisions, are thrown into swamps, landfills, and burning pits. Barefoot children and potential food sources, such as goats, roam freely among the trash. It has been shown that e-waste may contaminate surrounding soil and water with lead, cadmium, and mercury. The plastic contained in the computer's housing has been shown to emit cancer-causing dioxins and polyaromatic hydrocarbons when burned.

Mercury acts as a potent neurotoxin, existing primarily in the environment as methylmercury. It can be absorbed and accumulate not only in humans but also in our food, a process called bioaccumulation. Mercury can also be dispersed into the air, making the incineration of mercury-containing electronics hazardous. Even small amounts of mercury can cause substantial health issues, such as tremors, psychological changes, insomnia, and memory loss. Mercury is a fat-soluble substance. Once absorbed into the body of a pregnant woman, mercury can enter the bloodstream and harm the fetus. These children can then exhibit permanent deficits in cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and visual skills. Some sources of mercury, such as traditional mercury thermometers, have been removed from the market due to the potential health risks.

Research into the recycling of electronics has revealed that cathode ray tubes (CRTs) used in computer monitors and televisions contain an average of four pounds of lead. Additional lead can be found in soldered joints in the construction of this equipment. Because of the health impact of lead, in 2006 the European Union banned lead solder in some electronics equipment due to concerns with landfill contamination.

In some countries, such as China, the recycling technology is in its early stages even though those countries produce massive amounts of new electronics products. Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are a major component of their electronics-waste materials. Exerts consider PCBs to be the most difficult electronics waste to safely destroy due to the diverse materials and components used in its manufacture. Chinese waste-management experts are working to develop a proper recycling method to address this issue.

Health experts caution consumers not to store hazardous materials in food containers and to keep them in their original containers with the label intact. Caution is advised whenever substances are mixed, as they may explode or catch fire. Pouring these substances down storm drains, septic tanks, or toilets may pollute the local water supply. Local collection agencies or fire departments can answer questions about handling these substances.

As more efficient recycled materials replace raw materials, the negative impact on the land, water resources, and total greenhouse gas emissions is expected to decrease. This would result in a more positive health climate for the Earth's population.

Certain substances and wastes are problematic and not sufficiently addressed in the current international or the United States' recycling systems. Medically contaminated products, mercury, antifreeze, oils, pesticides, batteries, light bulbs, and nuclear plant materials are examples of wastes difficult to address. No comprehensive disposal solution is currently in place for these items. Concern has been expressed about their threat to the health of local residents, wildlife, water, and soil. Countries around the world are working toward more effective disposal of these materials.


General: In an effort to improve the rate of consumer purchase of recycled goods, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created an internal organization called Recycling Means Business. Its purpose is to support the development of new recycling businesses, encourage the expansion of existing recycling businesses, allow for job opportunities within the community, and assist in federal funding initiatives.

Executive Order 12873, signed into law by former President Clinton, requires all federal agencies to recycle and to buy recycled products when available. The EPA's Comprehensive Guideline (CPG) for Procurement of Products Containing Recovered Materials lists items that are made of recovered material.

Since 1974, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has promoted using sustainable biomaterials to replace fossil-fuel-based plastics, developing green industrial parks, salvaging methods for construction materials, voicing opposition to waste incineration projects, and using composting as a viable local process.

The EPA is working with the industrial community to develop markets for recycled goods, facilitating access to those goods by consumers, and encouraging expansion of the workforce within the recycling business.

Experts suggest that the future of recycling will revolve around the balance among the collection, reuse, and sale of new consumer items. Without this balance, the system begins to overload and communities are forced to return to incinerating or adding to landfills. Currently, the collection and manufacture of recycled goods is a stronger industry than the American consumer industry. Efforts by environmental groups are currently focused on educating the consumer to the advantages of buying recycled products.

Steps are being taken to improve the quality of recycled goods, expanding the type and variety of recycled goods, and increasing consumer awareness of their availability.

These initiatives are ways to involve banks, investment groups, and small business start-ups to fund the cost of recycling collection and manufacturing systems within communities and regions.

As industrial manufacturers realize the cost savings in using recycled materials instead of raw materials, efforts are being made to connect businesses interested in using recycled material with the collection agencies that process it.

The EPA provides a free comprehensive procurement guideline list, which outlines certain construction, landscaping, paper, transportation, and automotive items that can be recycled into alternate future products. It also offers a supplier directory of vendors who sell or deliver products with recycled materials.

The Department of Commerce and the Small Business Administration have also become involved in helping interested parties create and implement recycling in their areas.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a division of the Department of Commerce; Washington State's Clean Washington Center; and the National Recycling Coalition created the Recycling Technology Assistance Project (ReTAP). ReTAP provides technical assistance to manufacturing plants wanting to switch to recycled materials and educates the industrial world to the benefits of using recovered material.

To decrease the amount of materials consumed at stores, consumers are encouraged to reduce the amount of packaging on purchased products. The more packaging there is, the more materials there are that need to be manufactured and the more waste that is created for disposal. Consumers can use items such as cloth napkins, cloth grocery bags, rechargeable batteries, washable utensils, and refillable containers in order to decrease the amount of natural raw resources needed to produce them.

Consumer and commercial purchase of products that are easily recycled include avoiding items such as mercury-containing batteries (which are toxic in landfills and unable to be recycled). Pesticides, paint, and other hazardous materials must be disposed of according to the local regulations as they are toxic in soil leaching and water runoff. Electronics components may be recycled by an appropriate facility in that local area.

Identifying and designing safe, new, environmentally friendly manufacturing processes and innovative recycled products of interest to consumers will be the future challenge.

Since 40% of all American municipal waste is created from the commercial industry, attention is being focused on techniques and policies to decrease the impact on landfills. In the office setting, recyclable materials should be easily identified, easily reached, and appropriately transported to a recycling agency. Lunchrooms, restrooms, lobby areas, and office work areas should have labeled containers for disposal of paper, glass, metal, and plastic.

Paper recycling: Many industries have accepted the challenge to increase their use of recycled materials. The American Forest and Paper Association has set a goal of recovering at least 60% of all paper by the end of 2012, an amount equal to 60 million tons a year. Their current focus is within the office environment, where recycling efforts have just begun.

Plastic recycling: Newer materials, such as wood waste, and textiles are being tested for their value in recycling. Products such as plastic-wood composite park benches and playground equipment, highway barriers, and garbage containers are some of the items that may be produced from these wastes.

In Europe and Japan, limitations in landfill space have encouraged research into environmentally safe biodegradable plastic bottles.

At the Polymer Technology Center at Northwestern University, a patented approach to plastic recycling, called Solid State Shear Pulverization, has been developed to address the sorting issues with recycling. Able to convert all non-PVC, multicolored, unsorted bottles and plastic scrap, the end result is a consistent powder that can be melted and used by existing plastic manufacturing techniques. The end product could be used for all nonfood applications.

The recycling of plastics is among the newest recycling technologies and is expected to expand as newer and better techniques are developed. Since the various types of plastics melt at different temperatures, efforts are being made to create a machine that can melt each type of plastic and siphon off the liquid product, thereby eliminating the need for expensive and time-consuming manual sorting.

New forms of blended plastics are currently being developed for retail product use to address the problem of unsorted plastic waste. These new techniques may be able to address the earlier problems with recycling carpets, electronics, and automobile parts. One of the earliest factories to tackle this problem is scheduled to begin in the Philippines, which must import all plastics. Similar plants are also being considered in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

The search to create plastic from materials that will not hurt the environment has led to the use of cornstarch or cane sugar to produce a substance called polylactic acid (PLA). This new plastic has only recently become commercially viable, and research continues into its consumer product application.

Glass recycling: The glass industry is researching new and better ways to use all colors and types of glass containers. As glass can be indefinitely recycled, the ability to recycle without having to sort by color is currently being explored.

New safety measures that prevent worker injury have been a major goal of many glass-recycling plants.

Metal recycling: Consumer education about the proper disposal of nickel, lead, and cadmium is paramount to preventing human health issues, environmental pollution, and wildlife contamination.

Electronics recycling: Many of the large electronics manufacturers, such as Japan's Panasonic, are working to decrease the environmental impact of their products. Decreasing the amount of plastic, lead, and cadmium used in the construction of the electronics will help to decrease their disposal issues.


This information has been edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (

  • Glass Packaging Institute.
  • Health and Safety Executive Agency, United Kingdom.
  • Huang K, Guo J, Xu Z. Recycling of waste printed circuit boards: a review of current technologies and treatment status in China. J Hazard Mater. 2009 May 30;164(2-3):399-408. View abstract
  • Huo X, Peng L, Xu X, et al. Elevated blood lead levels of children in Guiyu, an electronic waste recycling town in China. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Jul;115(7):1113-7. View abstract
  • International Aluminum Institute.
  • Kolstad HA, Lynge E, Olsen J. Cancer incidence in the Danish reinforced plastics industry. IARC Sci Publ. 1993;(127):301-8. 8070877. View abstract
  • Langseth H, Andersen A. Cancer incidence among male pulp and paper workers in Norway. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2000 Apr;26(2):99-105. View abstract
  • National Recycling Coalition.
  • Paper Industry Association Council.
  • Schmidt CW. Unfair trade: e-waste in Africa. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Apr;114(4):a232-5. View abstract
  • Siemiatycki J, Richardson L, Straif K, et al. Listing occupational carcinogens. Environ Health Perspect. 2004 Nov;112(15):1447-59. View abstract
  • Spivey A. The weight of lead: Effects add up in adults. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Jan;115(1):A30-6. View abstract
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Copyright © 2011 Natural Standard (
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.