There are four groups of materials that are commonly recycled today.
1. Standard recyclables. The most commonly recycled materials are aluminum, glass, paper products, steel, and plastics.
2. Hazardous wastes. Hazardous wastes include items such as antifreeze, motor oil, paint, and batteries. Many cities have special centers to recycle hazardous wastes.
3. Newer products. Some recycling centers have systems to reprocess newer products such as compact and floppy disks.
Aluminum. Aluminum cans are the most widely recycled metal. In 1999 roughly two-thirds of all aluminum cans produced in the United States were recycled. However, not all forms of aluminum are recycled. For example, aluminum foil can be recycled, but not all recycling centers are set up to process it.
Paper. Paper recycling is one of this country's most successful recycling programs. By weight, more paper is recycled each year than all other materials combined. The success of this program is in part due to the successful marketing and sale of recycled paper. Recycled paper is widely used today. Unfortunately, paper can only be recycled a limited number of times, because the paper fibers become too short to continue reprocessing after awhile.
Newspaper. Every part of a newspaper can be recycled—including the newspaper and inserts. Newspaper recycling has been profitable for decades.
Steel. Steel cans can be recycled many times. Recycled steel is used for many products such as tin cans.
RECYCLING RATES OF SELECTED MATERIALS, 1994
Paper and paperboard
Yard Plastic Tires waste containers
Yard Plastic Tires waste containers source: EPA Waste Characterization Report, Franklin Assoc., 1995
Plastics. Plastics are not biodegradable, so the best choice is to recycle them. But plastics are a challenge for recycling centers. There are so many different kinds of plastics that they are difficult for recycling centers to reprocess; in fact, many plastics cannot be recycled. Those plastics that can be recycled can only be recycled a few times. Today, most plastic containers are marked on the bottom with a number in a triangle. Each number indicates a different kind of plastic. This information allows recycling center staff to identify plastic containers that can or cannot be recycled. Containers marked one or two are the most commonly accepted plastics for recycling.
Hazardous wastes. Hazardous wastes include toxic materials such as paints, solvents, motor oil, antifreeze, herbicides, and batteries. If these materials end up in landfills, the risk exists that they may leak into underlying groundwater which people use for drinking. If incinerated, these materials end up in the air. Many recycling centers have special programs for handling hazardous wastes.
Batteries. Batteries contain many toxic ingredients, such as lead and cadmium, which can cause serious environmental damage if they are buried in landfills. Many recycling centers direct customers to special dealers who accept used batteries.
Computers. Used computers are a challenge for recycling, because they need to be completely disassembled. Recently, a number of companies have
RECYCLING RATES OF KEY HOUSEHOLD ITEMS
Aluminum Bev. Cans
Plastic Soda Bottles
Glass Bev. Containers source: Characterization of MSW Report, Franklin Assoc., 1995
started exploring ways to do this efficiently and cost effectively. Recycling of computers is becoming increasingly important as the number of used computers continues to grow. One computer manufacturer, Dell, is now offering to take back old computers for reuse or recycling.
Automobile Recycling. For years, the economic incentives of recycling parts from cars, trucks and other motor vehicles has made automobile recycling a big business. In the United States, each year, more than eleven million vehicles are sent to the junkyard because they have been damaged in accidents or have reached the end of their life. About three-quarters of the scrapped vehicles are recycled or their parts are resold. Every part from the doors and windows to engines and transmissions are sold; other recyclable metal parts are magnetically separated from other materials. The rest are shredded and buried in landfills.
In the future, a smaller percentage of automobile parts will be recyclable as cars are built with more nonmetal, nonrecyclable materials, unless the automobile makers give serious attention to designing new cars that can be recycled. New cars are being built with more and more high-tech gear and hundreds of different materials that cannot be recovered.
Countries in the European Union have been exploring ways to encourage automobile manufacturers to take greater responsibility for the recycling of "end of life" automobiles. Several countries have already implemented "end of product responsibility" programs. For example, in the Netherlands, car manufacturers are liable to pay a recycling fee when they market a vehicle. The fee is then used to cover possible recycling costs.
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