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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.

In order to meet recyclers' needs while providing manufacturers a consistent, uniform system, a coding system is developed. The recycling code for plastics was introduced in 1988 by plastics industry through the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. Because municipal recycling programs traditionally have targeted packaging—primarily bottles and containers—the resin coding system offered a means of identifying the resin content of bottles and containers commonly found in the residential waste stream.

Both minimum recycled content mandates and utilization rates increase demand directly by forcing manufacturers to include recycling in their operations. Content mandates specify that a certain percentage of a new product must consist of recycled material. Utilization rates are a more flexible option: industries are permitted to meet the recycling targets at any point of their operation or even contract recycling out in exchange for tradeable credits. Opponents to both of these methods point to the large increase in reporting requirements they impose, and claim that they rob industry of necessary flexibility.

The amount of money actually saved through recycling depends on the efficiency of the recycling program used to do it. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance argues that the cost of recycling depends on various factors around a community that recycles, such as landfill fees and the amount of disposal that the community recycles. It states that communities start to save money when they treat recycling as a replacement for their traditional waste system rather than an add-on to it and by "redesigning their collection schedules and/or trucks."

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.

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