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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.

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.

Certain countries trade in unprocessed recyclates. Some have complained that the ultimate fate of recyclates sold to another country is unknown and they may end up in landfills instead of reprocessed. According to one report, in America, 50–80 percent of computers destined for recycling are actually not recycled.[30][31] There are reports of illegal-waste imports to China being dismantled and recycled solely for monetary gain, without consideration for workers' health or environmental damage. Although the Chinese government has banned these practices, it has not been able to eradicate them.[32] In 2008, the prices of recyclable waste plummeted before rebounding in 2009. Cardboard averaged about £53/tonne from 2004–2008, dropped to £19/tonne, and then went up to £59/tonne in May 2009. PET plastic averaged about £156/tonne, dropped to £75/tonne and then moved up to £195/tonne in May 2009.[33] Certain regions have difficulty using or exporting as much of a material as they recycle. This problem is most prevalent with glass: both Britain and the U.S. import large quantities of wine bottled in green glass. Though much of this glass is sent to be recycled, outside the American Midwest there is not enough wine production to use all of the reprocessed material. The extra must be downcycled into building materials or re-inserted into the regular waste stream

A recycling bin (or recycle bin) is a container used to hold recyclables before they are taken to recycling centers. Recycling bins exist in various sizes for use in homes, offices, and large public facilities. Separate containers are often provided for paper, tin or aluminum cans, and glass or plastic bottles.

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.

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