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Recycling is a process using materials (waste) into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution (from incineration) and water pollution (from landfilling) by reducing the need for "conventional" waste disposal, and lower greenhouse gas emissions as compared to plastic production. Recycling is a key component of modern waste reduction and is the third component of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" waste hierarchy.

Certain requirements must be met for recycling to be economically feasible and environmentally effective. These include an adequate source of recyclates, a system to extract those recyclates from the waste stream, a nearby factory capable of reprocessing the recyclates, and a potential demand for the recycled products. These last two requirements are often overlooked—without both an industrial market for production using the collected materials and a consumer market for the manufactured goods, recycling is incomplete and in fact only collection.

The design objectives behind the bin were efficient use of space and safety: to provide at least as much space as the older round bins, whilst reducing the risk of injury caused by moving it. This is important for both the householder and the waste collector, who risked injury through lifting the traditional bin or from sharp, or possibly contaminated objects in garbage bags. Standardisation of dimensions is important because the bins must be lifted by a standard sized hoist on the dustcart. The bins are lifted by the lip at the front which must be designed for maximum stiffness and mechanical strength. The underside of the lip is therefore reinforced by numerous ribs in the case of the thermoplastic bins. Steel bins have a much simpler lip owing to the properties of steel.

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.

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."

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