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Many recycling bins are designed to be easily recognizable, and are marked with slogans promoting recycling on a blue or green background. Others are intentionally unobtrusive. Bins are sometimes different colors so that user may differentiate between the types of materials to be placed in them. While there is no universal standard, the color blue is commonly used to indicate a bin is for recycling in public settings.

Fiscal efficiency is separate from economic efficiency. Economic analysis of recycling includes what economists call externalities, which are unpriced costs and benefits that accrue to individuals outside of private transactions. Examples include: decreased air pollution and greenhouse gases from incineration, reduced hazardous waste leaching from landfills, reduced energy consumption, and reduced waste and resource consumption, which leads to a reduction in environmentally damaging mining and timber activity. About 4,000 minerals are known, of these only a few hundred minerals in the world are relatively common. At current rates, current known reserves of phosphorus will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years. Without mechanisms such as taxes or subsidies to internalize externalities, businesses will ignore them despite the costs imposed on society. To make such nonfiscal benefits economically relevant, advocates have pushed for legislative action to increase the demand for recycled materials. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded in favor of recycling, saying that recycling efforts reduced the country's carbon emissions by a net 49 million metric tonnes in 2005. In the United Kingdom, the Waste and Resources Action Programme stated that Great Britain's recycling efforts reduce CO2 emissions by 10–15 million tonnes a year. Recycling is more efficient in densely populated areas, as there are economies of scale involved.

The smaller wheelie bins, for domestic or light commercial use, typically hold 120 to 360 litres (26 to 79 imp gal; 32 to 95 US gal), with 240 litres (53 imp gal; 63 US gal) being the most common. They have a hinged flap lid and two wheels on the bottom on the same side as the lid hinge. There is a bar behind the hinge on the top of the bin which is used to move it, or to hoist it up onto a garbage truck for emptying. The 240 litre bin is usually considered to have the same capacity as three traditional waste containers. In the UK, "wheelie bins" for non-recyclable domestic waste are currently collected either weekly or once a fortnight, depending on the local Council's waste management policies.

There are some ISO standards relating to recycling such as ISO 15270:2008 for plastics waste and ISO 14001:2004 for environmental management control of recycling practice.

Recyclable materials include many kinds of glass, paper, metal, plastic, textiles, and electronics. Although similar in effect, the composting or other reuse of biodegradable waste—such as food or garden waste—is not typically considered recycling. . Materials to be recycled are either brought to a collection center or picked up from the curbside, then sorted, cleaned, and reprocessed into new materials bound for manufacturing.

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