February 26, 2013, 12:48 pm
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Recycling pickup in Amsterdam along the Singel canal. (Source: Autopilot, via Wikimedia Commons).

caption Curbside recycling.

Recycling is the process of turning used products into raw materials that can be used to make new products. Its purpose is to conserve natural resources and reduce pollution. Recycling reduces energy consumption, since it generally takes less energy to recycle a product than to make a new one. Similarly, recycling causes less pollution than manufacturing a new product, and conserves raw materials. It also decreases the amount of waste sent to landfills or incinerators. Although people have always reused things, recycling as we know it today emerged as part of the modern environmental movement.

During World War II, Americans experimented with conservation and recycling as a matter of national security. Afterward, 1950s middle class life unapologetically adopted the ethics of expansion and newness. As more and more middle-class Americans began to express environmental attitudes, the wastefulness of modern consumption became obvious to more and more consumers. More Americans than ever before became willing to integrate such practices into their lives as part of a commitment to the environment. For instance, most children born after the 1980s assume the "recycle, reduce, and re-use" mantra has been part of the U.S. since its founding. In actuality, it serves as a continuation of the cultural and social impact of Earth Day 1970 and the effort of Americans to begin to live within limits.

Belittled by many environmentalists, recycling often seems like busy-work for kids with little actual environmental benefit. However, such a minor shift in human behavior suggests the significant alteration made to many humans' view of their place in nature by the late 1900s. This change in worldview, caused by many political, social, and intellectual shifts, forced humans in developed nations to question their lack of restraint. In particular, the culture of consumption of post-World War II America re-enforced carelessness, waste, and a drive for newness. Environmental concerns contributed to a new "ethic" within American culture that began to value restraint, re-use, and living within limits. This ethic of restraint, fed by over-used landfills and excessive litter, gave communities a new mandate in maintaining the waste of their population. Re-using products or creating useful byproducts from waste offered application of this new ethic while also offering new opportunity for economic profit and development.

Non-profit recycling centers began opening around the country, followed by municipal recycling programs. Today, most U.S. communities have such programs. A typical program asks people to separate their recyclables from their trash before placing them at the curb for collection. To encourage recycling, some communities also charge residents for the quantity of trash put out for collection. The most commonly recycled household items are paper and cardboard; metal, glass, and plastic containers and packaging; and yard waste. Recycling the recovered materials is simple for metals and glass; they can be melted down, reformed, and reused. Yard waste can be composted with little or no equipment. Paper, the most important recycled material, must be mixed with water, and sometimes de-inked, to form a pulp that can be used in papermaking. Plastics recycling requires an expensive process of separation of different resins.

In the US, plastics are all numerically coded according to type, including: polyethylene terphthalate (PETE or PET; 1) an example of these plastics are virtually all soft drink bottles, high density polyethylene (HDPE; 2) an example would be detergent bottles, polyvinyl chloride (PVC; 3), sometimes used for water or oil bottles but now rare in food beverage packaging, due to concerns about its environmental hazards; low density polyethylene (LDPE; 4) often used for plastic bags, polypropylene (PP; 5) examples are some yogurt containers and bottle caps, and polystyrene (PS; 6) used to make Styrofoam containers. Number 7 seen on some packaging, refers to all plastics other than these six. It is not a single plastic material.

The American Chemistry Council reports that in the US in 2005, 922 million pounds of HDPE bottles (those thick plastic bottles like milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles) were recycled, as were over one billion pounds of PET and PP bottles, although they note that this represents only about 25-30% of all recyclable bottles. The majority of this is attributed to PET, as PP recycling is rare, and a large part of the recycling of bottles comes from the 11 states with deposit legislation.

Depending on the type, plastics can be recycled into anything from fiberfill to polyester-like fibers, to blue recycling bins, or plastic lumber furniture. Fleece is an example of a textile that can be produced from recycled plastics. While many companies still rely on “virgin” polyester to produce fleece, there are now several “eco-fleece” products on the market that are made primarily or entirely from recycled bottles.

Further Reading

  • Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. NY: Owl Books, 2000. ISBN: 0805065121
  • Zimring, Carl A. Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America. Rutgers University Press, 2005. ISBN: 0813536863


Ackerman, F. (2013). Recycling. Retrieved from


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