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Some industries, like the renewable energy industry and solar photovoltaic technology in particular, are being proactive in setting up recycling policies even before there is considerable volume to their waste streams, anticipating future demand during their rapid growth.

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.

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.

 

In certain areas there is also a recycling service, often with one or more dedicated bins intended to receive items that can be recycled into new products. These bins are sometimes separated into different categories (usually represented by colours) which determine what materials can be inserted into the bin. The contents of the bins are taken to a recycling plant to be processed, and there are various systems for recycling-bin collection: single-bin-combined stream systems, multiple-bin systems, and cyclic collections with different materials collected on different days.

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.

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