Is recycling the best thing I can do to reduce waste?

You know what’s even better than recycling? Reducing the amount of waste you produce and reusing all that you can. The solid waste management hierarchy ranks the most preferable ways to minimize solid waste. Source reduction or waste prevention, which includes reuse, is the best approach, followed by recycling. Waste that cannot be prevented or recycled can be incinerated or disposed through landfills, as long as it is done in accordance with proper regulations. 


Why is source reduction at the top of the hierarchy?  Because the best approach to managing solid waste is to avoid creating it in the first place.  This means reducing the amount of trash you discard and reusing containers and products instead of throwing them away. Another way of thinking about it is to buy what you need and need what you buy. Be sure to look out for and avoid purchasing products that are sold in excessive packaging. 

Once waste is created, recycling, which includes composting, is one of the most effective methods of reducing the amount of material in the waste stream.  If waste cannot be recycled, incineration or disposal through landfills are the final, and least preferable, methods of treatment. 

Why reduce, reuse and recycle?

While landfill space may seem plentiful, how would you feel if a new landfill was proposed for your community? You might answer, “Not in MY backyard!” Placing a landfill is very difficult, especially in the southeastern states with heavy population growth. Besides, does burying otherwise valuable resources and making several hundred acres of landfill space unusable for future generations sound like a best-case scenario?

Some people think that by burying trash, it all just decomposes into dirt. While some breakdown does occur, decomposition isn’t a reality, because sanitary landfills are covered daily and sealed at the end of their use; thus, they lack the air, water, and light needed for materials to decompose. Highly combustible methane gas is also produced from the decomposition of trash, especially yard waste. That gas has to be tapped and burned off to prevent explosions but poses a larger problem too. Methane is a greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for approximately 9-15 years. In fact, methane is more than 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. 

Okay. Now that you know that reducing, reusing, and recycling your waste saves land from landfill development, helps to preserve groundwater resources, and minimizes the amount of greenhouse gases released into the environment, let’s talk about the effects on the economy. You’ve probably heard that many recyclable materials have a monetary value that is wasted when the materials are landfilled. That’s true. But did you consider that communities can avoid high disposal costs by selling those recyclable materials? A penny saved is a penny earned!

Recycling is beneficial for your local economy in a broader sense too. 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. 

What materials are most commonly recycled in the United States through collection programs?

U.S. recycling rates for commonly recycled consumer goods in 2003 are listed below:

  • Newspapers: 82.4 percent 
  • Corrugated Cardboard Boxes: 71.3 percent 
  • Steel Cans: 60.0 percent 
  • Yard Trimmings: 56.3 percent 
  • Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Cans: 43.9 percent 
  • Scrap Tires: 35.6 percent 
  • Magazines: 33.0 percent  
  • Plastic Milk and Water Bottles: 31.9 percent  
  • Plastic Soft Drink Bottles: 25.2 percent
How do I know what materials are recyclable in my community?

Most communities employ recycling coordinators—government officials who have information on local recycling resources—who can answer specific questions about recycling and waste management in your city or town. Look in your phone book under Recycling or Solid Waste, or contact the relevant city or county government office (often called Department of Sanitation or Department of Public Works). 

Your local recycling program should be able to provide you with a list of materials that can be collected for recycling in your community. Following is a short list of the most common materials that are recycled in many communities:

Paper: Newspaper is almost always recovered in community recycling programs. Some communities also collect white and colored paper (sometimes combined as "mixed paper") and used cardboard boxes, such as cereal boxes.


PlasticsNot all communities recycle all types of plastic. Investigate your community's plastic collection through the resources listed above. Most communities recycle plastic items such as detergent bottles, beverage containers (e.g., soda, milk and juice), and containers for various household products.


Aluminum: Almost all recycling programs include aluminum beverage cans. These cans, one of the most highly recycled-products, are made into new cans in as few as 90 days after they are collected. Some communities also collect aluminum foil for recycling.


Steel: Many steel products manufactured in the United States contain a high percentage of recycled steel. Some products are even made from 100 percent recycled steel. Many communities recycle soup cans and other steel food packaging containers, as well as steel aerosol cans.


Glass: Glass food containers, such as jars and bottles for pickles, juice, jam, or wine, are usually recyclable in many communities. 


Yard Trimmings/Food Scraps: Many communities have regular or seasonal programs in place to collect yard trimmings, such as leaves, branches, and grass clippings, from residents. Other communities encourage residents to practice backyard composting for yard trimmings and food scraps.


The recycling process: What happens to my recyclables after I put them out at the curbside?

After you put your recyclables out on the curb, they begin a circular journey during which they are processed and manufactured into new recycled-content products. The recycled products are then sold in stores to consumers, who can repeat the recycling process all over again. Below is a brief summary of the three phases of the recycling loop.

Step 1. Collection and Processing
After recyclables are collected at the curb or from a drop-off center, haulers take them to a materials recovery facility (MRF), where they are sorted and baled.
Step 2. Manufacturing 
Once they are cleaned, separated, and baled, recyclables are remanufactured into new products. Many consumer products, such as newspapers, aluminum and steel cans, plastic containers, plastic products, and glass bottles, are now manufactured with total or partial recycled content.
Step 3. Purchasing Recycled Products
Purchasing recycled products completes the recycling loop. By "buying recycled," governments, businesses, and individual consumers each play an important role in making the recycling process a success. 

How you can help

Helping to support your local recycling program might not be as tough as you think. Your first step should be to get in touch with the proper authorities in your area. Most communities have recycling coordinators—government officials who have information on local recycling resources. Look in your phone book under "recycling coordinators" or contact your local Department of Public Works or Department of Sanitation.

How does the U.S. compare with other countries? 

The United States leads the industrialized world in municipal solid waste (MSW) generation, with each person in the United States currently generating on average 4.5 pounds of waste per day. Canada and the Netherlands come in second and third, with 3.75 and 3 pounds per person per day, respectively. Germany and Sweden generate the least amount of waste per capita for industrialized nations, with just under 2 pounds per person per day. The United States, however, also leads the industrialized world in recycling. The United States recycled 24 percent of its waste in 1995, the most recent year for which comparative international data is available. Switzerland and Japan came in second and third, recycling 23 percent and 20 percent of their discard stream, respectively. 

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 British thermal units (BTUs), which equals the amount of energy used in 6 million households annually. In 2005, recycling was conservatively projected to save 900 trillion BTUs,

Can waste prevention and recycling help prevent 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 produce 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. However, 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, thus reducing the methane that would be released if these materials broke down 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.

What materials are not safe to throw in my trash?

Chances are, there are certain items or products in your house that you should not throw out in the trash. Many common household items, such as paint, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides, contain hazardous components. Leftover portions of these products are called household hazardous waste (HHW). These products, if mishandled, can be dangerous to human health and the environment.

Certain types of HHW can cause physical injury to sanitation workers, contaminate septic tanks or wastewater treatment systems if poured down drains or toilets, and present hazards to children and pets if left around the house. Some communities have special programs that allow residents to dispose of HHW separately. Others allow disposal of properly prepared HHW in trash, particularly those areas that do not yet have special HHW collection programs in place. Call your local Department of Sanitation or Department of Public Works for instructions on proper disposal. Follow their instructions and also read product labels for disposal directions to reduce the risk of products exploding, igniting, leaking, mixing with other chemicals, or posing other hazards on the way to a disposal facility. Even empty containers that used to contain HHW can pose hazards because of the residual chemicals inside.

My community just started to charge residents based on the amount of garbage they throw away. Why is this necessary? What are the benefits of Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) programs?

Traditionally, residents pay for waste collection and disposal through property taxes or a fixed fee, regardless of how much or how little trash they generate. Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) programs break with tradition by treating trash services just like electricity, gas, and other utilities. Households pay a variable rate depending on the amount of garbage they throw away. More than 5,000 communities across the United States have a PAYT program in place. In most of these programs, residents are charged a fee for each bag or can of waste they generate. The less individuals throw away, the less they pay. 

EPA supports this approach to solid waste management for three main reasons: 

Environmental sustainability. Communities with programs in place have reported significant increases in recycling and reductions in waste, due primarily to the cost incentive created by PAYT. Less waste and more recycling mean that fewer natural resources need to be extracted.
Economic sustainability. PAYT is an effective tool for communities struggling to cope with soaring municipal solid waste (MSW) management expenses. Well-designed programs help communities generate the revenues they need to cover their solid waste management costs, including the costs of recycling and composting programs. Residents benefit, too, because they have the opportunity to take control of their trash bills. 
Equity. When the cost of managing trash is hidden in taxes or charged at a flat rate, residents who recycle and prevent waste subsidize their neighbors' wastefulness. Under PAYT, residents pay only for what they throw away. 

PREVIOUS: Recycling information | NEXT: Buy recycled

Public Information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Recycling facts
You know what's even better than recycling? Reducing the amount of waste you produce and reusing all that you can.