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.
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."
Legislation has also been used to increase and maintain a demand for recycled materials. Four methods of such legislation exist: minimum recycled content mandates, utilization rates, procurement policies, recycled product labeling.
Plastic products are printed with numbers 1–7 depending on the type of resin. Type 1 plastic, PET (or PETE): polyethylene terephthalate, is commonly found in soft drink and water bottles. Type 2, HDPE: high-density polyethylene is found in most hard plastics such as milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, and some dishware. Type 3, PVC or V (vinyl), includes items like shampoo bottles, shower curtains, hoola hoops, credit cards, wire jacketing, medical equipment, siding, and piping. Type 4, called LDPE, or low-density polyethylene, is found in shopping bags, squeezable bottles, tote bags, clothing, furniture, and carpet. Type 5 is PP which stands for polypropylene and makes up syrup bottles, straws, Tupperware, and some automotive parts. Type 6 is PS: polystyrene and makes up meat trays, egg cartons, clamshell containers and compact disc cases. Type 7 includes all other plastics like bulletproof materials, 3- and 5-gallon water bottles, and sunglasses.Types 1 and 2 are the most commonly recycled.
Levels of metals recycling are generally low. In 2010, the International Resource Panel, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published reports on metal stocks that exist within society and their recycling rates. The Panel reported that the increase in the use of metals during the 20th and into the 21st century has led to a substantial shift in metal stocks from below ground to use in applications within society above ground. For example, the in-use stock of copper in the USA grew from 73 to 238 kg per capita between 1932 and 1999.