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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 1996 article for The New York Times, John Tierney argued that it costs more money to recycle the trash of New York City than it does to dispose of it in a landfill. Tierney argued that the recycling process employs people to do the additional waste disposal, sorting, inspecting, and many fees are often charged because the processing costs used to make the end product are often more than the profit from its sale.[59] Tierney also referenced a study conducted by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) that found in the six communities involved in the study, "all but one of the curbside recycling programs, and all the composting operations and waste-to-energy incinerators, increased the cost of waste disposal."

For a recycling program to work, having a large, stable supply of recyclable material is crucial. Three legislative options have been used to create such a supply: mandatory recycling collection, container deposit legislation, and refuse bans. Mandatory collection laws set recycling targets for cities to aim for, usually in the form that a certain percentage of a material must be diverted from the city's waste stream by a target date. The city is then responsible for working to meet this target.

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.

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.

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