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In a 2007 article, Michael Munger, chairman of political science at Duke University, wrote that "if recycling is more expensive than using new materials, it can't possibly be efficient.... There is a simple test for determining whether something is a resource... or just garbage... If someone will pay you for the item, it's a resource.... But if you have to pay someone to take the item away,... then the item is garbage."

For a recycling program to work, having a large, stable supply of recyclable material is crucial. Three legislative options have been used to create such a supply: mandatory recycling collection, container deposit legislation, and refuse bans. Mandatory collection laws set recycling targets for cities to aim for, usually in the form that a certain percentage of a material must be diverted from the city's waste stream by a target date. The city is then responsible for working to meet this target.

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Curbside waste containers usually consist of three types: trash cans (receptacles often made of tin, steel or plastic), dumpsters (large receptacles similar to skips) and wheelie bins (light, usually plastic bins that are mobile). All of these are emptied by collectors who will load the contents into a garbage truck and drive it to a landfill, incinerator or crusher facility for disposal. The standard-sized UK wheelie bin household collection is 240 litres or more.

In the past terrorists have left bombs in bins. The bomb is much less likely to be spotted than an unattended bag and the metal bins provide extra shrapnel that injures people nearby when it detonates. For this reason there are no bins in most railway stations, most airports and many shopping centres in the world, or if they are provided they are just a bin bag hanging from a metal hoop.

Every year, millions of tons of materials are being exploited from the earth's crust, and processed into consumer and capital goods. After decades to centuries, most of these materials are "lost". With the exception of some pieces of art or religious relics, they are no longer engaged in the consumption process. Where are they? Recycling is only an intermediate solution for such materials, although it does prolong the residence time in the anthroposphere. For thermodynamic reasons, however, recycling cannot prevent the final need for an ultimate sink.

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