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Industrialization spurred demand for affordable materials; aside from rags, ferrous scrap metals were coveted as they were cheaper to acquire than was virgin ore. Railroads both purchased and sold scrap metal in the 19th century, and the growing steel and automobile industries purchased scrap in the early 20th century. Many secondary goods were collected, processed, and sold by peddlers who combed dumps, city streets, and went door to door looking for discarded machinery, pots, pans, and other sources of metal. By World War I, thousands of such peddlers roamed the streets of American cities, taking advantage of market forces to recycle post-consumer materials back into industrial production.

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.

Both minimum recycled content mandates and utilization rates increase demand directly by forcing manufacturers to include recycling in their operations. Content mandates specify that a certain percentage of a new product must consist of recycled material. Utilization rates are a more flexible option: industries are permitted to meet the recycling targets at any point of their operation or even contract recycling out in exchange for tradeable credits. Opponents to both of these methods point to the large increase in reporting requirements they impose, and claim that they rob industry of necessary flexibility.

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.

Certain public areas such as parks have litter bins which are placed alongside paths frequently walked by visitors. This encourages people to avoid littering, as littering creates an unhealthy and aesthetically unpleasant social environment.

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