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Recycling has been a common practice throughout human history. In pre-industrial times, scrap made of bronze and other precious metals was collected in Europe and melted down for perpetual reuse, and in Britain dust and ash from wood and coal fires was downcycled as a base material in brick making. The main driver for these types of recycling was the economic advantage of obtaining recycled feedstock instead of acquiring virgin material, as well as a lack of public waste removal in ever more-populated sites.

Paper recycling began in Britain in 1921, when the British Waste Paper Association was established to encourage trade in waste paper recycling.

Resource shortages caused by the world wars, and other such world-changing occurrences greatly encouraged recycling. Massive government promotion campaigns were carried out in World War II in every country involved in the war, urging citizens to donate metals and conserve fibre, as a matter of significant patriotic importance. Resource conservation programs established during the war were continued in some countries without an abundance of natural resources, such as Japan, after the war ended.

In the USA, the next big investment in recycling occurred in the 1970s, due to rising energy costs (recycling aluminum uses only 5% of the energy required by virgin production; glass, paper and metals have less dramatic but very significant energy savings when recycled feedstock is used). The passage of the Clean Water Act of 1977 in the USA created strong demand for bleached paper (office paper whose fibre has already been bleached white increased in value as water effluent became more expensive).

In 1973, the city of Berkeley, California began one of the first curbside collection programs with monthly pick ups of newspapers from residences. Since then several countries have started and expanded various doorstep collection schemes.

One event that initiated recycling efforts occurred in 1989 when the city of Berkeley, California, banned the use of polystyrene packaging for keeping McDonald's hamburgers warm. One effect of this ban was to raise the ire of management at Dow Chemical, the world's largest manufacturer of polystyrene, which led to the first major effort to show that plastics can be recycled. By 1999, there were 1,677 companies in the USA alone involved in the post-consumer plastics recycling business.

 

Benefits

Recycling is beneficial in two ways: it reduces the inputs (energy and raw materials) to a production system and reduces the amount of waste produced for disposal.

Some materials like aluminium can be recycled indefinitely as there is no change to the materials. Other recycled materials like paper require a percentage of raw materials (wood fibers) to be added to compensate for the degradation of existing fibers.

Since the materials being processed are purer, less energy is needed to process them and less energy is needed to transport from the place of extraction (e.g. bauxite/aluminium ore mines in Brazil or coniferous forests in Scandinavia).

This reduces the environmental, social, and usually the economic costs of manufacturing.

For example, bauxite mines in Brazil displace indigenous people, create noise pollution from blasting, machinery and transport, and create air pollution in the form of particulates (dust). The habitat loss and visual destruction is also negative both to the aesthetic qualities of the areas and the local environment. However, the mines do provide employment and revenue to the local population and economy, promoting development of the country as a whole.

Recycling aluminium saves 95% of the energy cost of processing new aluminium because the melting temperature is reduced from 900 C to 600 C. It is by far the most efficient material to recycle.

The most commonly used methods for waste disposal (landfill, proloysis, incineration) are environmentally damaging and unsustainable. Therefore any way to reduce the volume of waste being disposed in this fashion are beneficial. The maximum environmental benefit is gained by waste minimization (reducing the amount of waste produced), and reusing items in their current form such as refilling bottles.

All recycling techniques consume energy, for transportation and processing, and some also use considerable amounts of water.

The desired order for environmental sustainability is:

bulletReduce
bulletReuse
bulletRecycle

Recently, recycling has been garnering attention for its role in green house gas emission reduction, since recycled resin is produced with less emissions than virgin materials.