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The report authors observed that, as metals are inherently recyclable, the metals stocks in society can serve as huge mines above ground. However, they found that the recycling rates of many metals are very low. The report warned that the recycling rates of some rare metals used in applications such as mobile phones, battery packs for hybrid cars and fuel cells, are so low that unless future end-of-life recycling rates are dramatically stepped up these critical metals will become unavailable for use in modern technology.

In the strictest sense, recycling of a material would produce a fresh supply of the same material—for example, used office paper would be converted into new office paper, or used foamed polystyrene into new polystyrene. However, this is often difficult or too expensive (compared with producing the same product from raw materials or other sources), so "recycling" of many products or materials involves their reuse in producing different materials (e.g., paperboard) instead. Another form of recycling is the salvage of certain materials from complex products, either due to their intrinsic value (e.g., lead from car batteries, or gold from computer components), or due to their hazardous nature (e.g., removal and reuse of mercury from various items). Critics dispute the net economic and environmental benefits of recycling over its costs, and suggest that proponents of recycling often make matters worse and suffer from confirmation bias. Specifically, critics argue that the costs and energy used in collection and transportation detract from (and outweigh) the costs and energy saved in the production process; also that the jobs produced by the recycling industry can be a poor trade for the jobs lost in logging, mining, and other industries associated with virgin production; and that materials such as paper pulp can only be recycled a few times before material degradation prevents further recycling. Proponents of recycling dispute each of these claims, and the validity of arguments from both sides has led to enduring controversy.

Other studies have shown that recycling in itself is inefficient to perform the “decoupling” of economic development from the depletion of non-renewable raw materials that is necessary for sustainable development. The international transportation or recycle material flows through "...different trade networks of the three countries result in different flows, decay rates, and potential recycling returns." As global consumption of a natural resources grows, its depletion is inevitable. The best recycling can do is to delay, complete closure of material loops to achieve 100 percent recycling of nonrenewables is impossible as micro-trace materials dissipate into the environment causing severe damage to the planets ecosystems. Historically, this was identified as the metabolic rift by Karl Marx, who identified the unequal exchange rate between energy and nutrients flowing from rural areas to feed urban cities that create effluent wastes degrading the planets ecological capital, such as loss in soil nutrient production. Energy conservation also leads to what is known as Jevon's paradox, where improvements in energy efficiency lowers the cost of production and leads to a rebound effect where rates of consumption and economic growth increases.

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.

Although many government programs are concentrated on recycling at home, a large portion of waste is generated by industry. The focus of many recycling programs done by industry is the cost-effectiveness of recycling. The ubiquitous nature of cardboard packaging makes cardboard a commonly recycled waste product by companies that deal heavily in packaged goods, like retail stores, warehouses, and distributors of goods. Other industries deal in niche or specialized products, depending on the nature of the waste materials that are present.

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