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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.

The amount of energy saved through recycling depends upon the material being recycled and the type of energy accounting that is used. Emergy (spelled with an m) analysis, for example, budgets for the amount of energy of one kind (exergy) that is required to make or transform things into another kind of product or service. Using emergy life-cycle analysis researchers have concluded that materials with large refining costs have the greatest potential for high recycle benefits. Moreover, the highest emergy efficiency accrues from systems geared toward material recycling, where materials are engineered to recycle back into their original form and purpose, followed by adaptive reuse systems where the materials are recycled into a different kind of product, and then by by-product reuse systems where parts of the products are used to make an entirely different product.

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.

The military recycles some metals. The U.S. Navy's Ship Disposal Program uses ship breaking to reclaim the steel of old vessels. Ships may also be sunk to create an artificial reef. Uranium is a very dense metal that has qualities superior to lead and titanium for many military and industrial uses. The uranium left over from processing it into nuclear weapons and fuel for nuclear reactors is called depleted uranium, and it is used by all branches of the U.S. military use for armour-piercing shells and shielding.

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.

 

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