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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.

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.

The construction industry may recycle concrete and old road surface pavement, selling their waste materials for profit.

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."

There is some debate over whether recycling is economically efficient. However, recycling materials has been proven to be beneficial to the economy as it can create jobs for people in the US. It is said that dumping 10,000 tons of waste in a landfill creates six jobs, which recycling 10,000 tons of waste can create over 36 jobs. According to the U.S. Recycling Economic Informational Study, there are over 50,000 recycling establishments that have created over a million jobs in the US. Two years after New York City declared that implementing recycling programs would be a drain on the city, New York City leaders realized that an efficient recycling system could save the city over $20 million.[24] Municipalities often see fiscal benefits from implementing recycling programs, largely due to the reduced landfill costs. A study conducted by the Technical University of Denmark according to the Economist found that in 83 percent of cases, recycling is the most efficient method to dispose of household waste. However, a 2004 assessment by the Danish Environmental Assessment Institute concluded that incineration was the most effective method for disposing of drink containers, even aluminium ones.

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