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
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
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.
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
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: