Recycling Law and Legal Definition

The primary laws dealing with recycling are state and local laws, which vary by state and area. States face a looming crisis in solid waste management related to the ever-increasing volumes of waste intended for disposal. The solid wastes presently disposed of contain substantial volumes of materials which are capable of recovery and reuse if recycling programs are developed and implemented within the state.

Many states have enacted recycling programs because of the substantial amounts of solid wastes which can be recovered through a coordinated recycling program. A recycling program by state departments and agencies serves to demonstrate to local governments and private businesses the practical benefits of and proper techniques for implementing such a program. The state may regulate the marketing of recycled materials and specify how to apply the proceeds from the sale of recycled material.

Additional Definitions


Beginning in the mid-1960s and growing alongside the environmental movement, recycling became an important aspect of municipal waste management and symbolic of personal actions to help clean up the environment. In earlier times various kinds of recycling took place; they consisted in diverting products from the waste stream before discard. Boy and Girl Scout troops collected old newspapers to raise funds—as those old enough may still remember. Beer, sodas, and milk moved in returnable glass bottles; and because most of these containers finally broke in centralized facilities like bottling plants, the residues were also collected and sold to glass companies. During World War II the government solicited metals and the public set these aside to help the war effort. Finally, automobiles that had reached their final hour were recycled, as they still are, in scrap yards—by far the most massive consumer products, alongside appliances, thus disposed.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "environment" was first used in its current sense in 1956. It did not become a household word until the 1960s. Long before that time, however, recycling was a major industrial activity carried out for economic reasons but under different names: in metals it was the scrap trade, in paper the waste paper trade in two branches—newsprint gathered by volunteers and cardboard gathered from offices and warehouses; there was also a trade in broken glass ("cullet"), in rags, and in waste oil. Farmers collected restaurant wastes to feed to pigs and recycled the fertilizer value of farm animal wastes as manure. And farm and garden wastes have always been composted. None of these activities has changed and, in fact, are the recipients of wastes today extracted from the municipal waste stream. Certain forms of recycling, however, are relatively new. They include reprocessing of auto tires into rubber, synthetic fuels, or paving materials; the recovery of lead from batteries; plastics recycling; and relatively experimental methods of converting organic wastes to fuel ("bio diesel"). Then, as still today, manufacturing wastes were either immediately recycled if suitable or used for fuel to power production activities—common in wood and fiber-using operations.


The movement toward municipal solid waste (MSW) recycling was probably sparked by the introduction of steel cans to package soft drinks and beer in 1953. These containers made a contrast with the returnable bottle, at that time still the dominant mode of beverage packaging; cans did not bear a deposit and were soon littering roads. Keep America Beautiful, a business-sponsored organization, began operation in 1953 as well and attempted to persuade the public not to litter. KAB's most memorable ad image was the Indian chief with the tear in his eye—sad over the despoliation of the countryside. The public noticed that packaging was proliferating and turning into a form of marketing—and solid waste tonnage was growing more rapidly than population. The "throw-away" society was born. In 1965, the first federal law on solid waste, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, passed Congress coinciding with the introduction of aluminum beverage containers that year: you could crush them in one hand! Amended versions of the act gave recycling more and more prominence until the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 made recycling of MSW a national policy. But RCRA had no mandatory provisions. With the exception of mandatory deposit bills at the state level and local laws mandating separate collection of recyclables from waste, recycling at the national level continues still as an injunction rather than as a regulatory program.


MSW recycling has always required subsidy because scrap prices do not cover the expensive separation of commingled wastes by hand or machine. At the same time, disposal of wastes, whether by the relatively expensive method of incineration or the lower-cost use of burial in landfills, is less expensive than waste separation with a portion recycled and a larger portion disposed of—even when scrap revenues were factored in. For these reasons MSW recycling has been essentially funded by the public sector and by the population's contribution of labor in separating wastes.

Even when collection, separation, and concentration costs for material components are subsidized, economic conditions cause demand for waste-derived commodities to cycle up and down. This has led to programs to increase the "recycled content" of goods produced. Companies advertise high recycled content as a way of inducing environmentally aware consumers to select their products. Where technically feasible, and the waste markets sold for a lower price than "virgin" raw materials, producers also realized a cost benefit.

Quantitative Trends

Based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), MSW generation was 236.2 million tons in 2003, of which 176.4 million tons (75 percent) was in the form of potentially recoverable materials. Of this subtotal 31.4 percent was recovered for recycling in 2003, most of it in the form of paper (72 percent). The bulk of recovered paper was in the form of old newspapers from households and corrugated cardboard from businesses. About 48 percent of all paper and board, 36 percent of metals, and 19 percent of glass is recovered; the lowest recovery rate is associated with plastics (5 percent), the highest with nonferrous metals, primarily lead batteries (67 percent). The low rate of plastics recovery is explained both by the many types of plastics on the market, the difficulties in sorting them, and the fact that some cannot be remelted.

Of the 60 million tons of organic and miscellaneous wastes not included in figures above, cities recovered about 17 million tons in 2003, 28.2 percent, the great bulk of it in the form of composted yard trimmings. For context, it is worth noting that MSW represents a mere 3 percent of total waste generation in the United States, which, based on EPA's estimates, stood at around 7.84 billion tons. The overwhelming mass of this waste, however, is the form of mine tailings. Industrial waste generation in the major categories like metals, paper, plastics, and glass is very low because production wastes are immediately recycled.

Recycling rates appear to have increased since the beginning of the recycling movement, but reliable numbers are not available. The reason for this is that waste generation by type of content is not routinely determined; in some surveys (such as the one cited above) commercial wastes are included, in some they are left out. Very substantial paperboard recoveries have always been associated with commercial sources—long before recycling took hold; and in the olden days much newsprint was diverted from MSW when demand for waste paper was high. One source, cited by EPA, Biocycle Magazine, showed recycling increasing from 19 percent in 1992 to 33 percent in 2000, with increases in every year in between. Such data, however, are not based on scientific or census-like measurements and, while no doubt capturing a trend, are more impressionistic.

Energy Recovery

Conversion of MSW to energy, referred to as waste-to-energy, was proposed and demonstrated early in the history of waste recycling—on the model of industrial practice. Waste-to-energy conversion is tracked by the Energy Information Administration. Data provided by EIA indicate steady if somewhat cyclical growth in energy production from solid waste. Generation, expressed in equivalents of British thermal units (BTUs) was 0.354 quadrillion Btu in 1989 and had reached 0.571 quadrillion Btu by 2003. In 2003, the breakdowns of the total were 1) combustion with heat or electric power recovery at 51 percent, 2) capture of methane gases from landfills, 26 percent, and 3) heat recovery from agricultural byproducts, sludges, tires, and other biomass components of waste, 24 percent. In 2003, waste-to-energy represented 9.4 percent of all renewable energy consumption—more than 3 times the amount provided by solar and wind energy combined.


Commercial recycling, as distinct from industrial recycling, tends to be reported as part MSW which EPA defines as consisting of residential, commercial, and institutional sources. Commercial operations in which bulk packaging is routinely handled have always routinely collected corrugated board for sale to waste paper dealers: it is the highest grade of waste paper available and demand for it tends to be fairly steady. With the rise of environmental consciousness, offices have also participated in occasional programs of collecting waste paper used in business operations. These programs have had a mixed history—intensifying in times of high waste paper prices and slacking off in others. Unlike corrugated collection systems which are strongly institutionalized and integrated into operations, employee programs in which two separate waste cans are used, one for paper, one for all other waste, require constant management attention. Such attention is rarely sustained, with the result that programs fade away until once more reinstituted with a new initiative.

Like cardboard recovery in retail and warehousing operations, industrial recycling is strongly supported by economic motives and is hence both routine and well-managed. In industry recycling takes three basic forms: 1) reuse of production wastes in the course of normal operations, 2) use of scrap as the principal or only raw material input, and 3) the reuse of post-consumption waste products.

In the first case, reusing production wastes, the waste may be trimmings or residues from production runs which are simply collected and reintroduced at the beginning of the process. An example might be a forging operation in which defective forgings are simply remelted. Another distinct instance is an operation which uses a portion of its raw materials, namely a waste product, as a fuel. An example is a saw mill that collects wood bark in debarking operations and uses it, with other wood-wastes, as fuel to power a boiler house which runs the sawing operations.

Electric steel mills that convert scrap metal into new steel products are the best-known example of an industry which runs exclusively on scrap. Waste-oil refineries are another example: they receive spent lubricants, filter out impurities, and blend the results into various low-end products.

The steel, paper, and glass industries are examples of operations which use both "virgin" materials and waste to make new products. Certain paper mills that produce paperboard (used in folding boxes, as backings for writing pads, and in other stiffening applications—some-times coated on one or both sides by virgin sheets) and some mills that make newsprint also rely exclusively on waste paper. Others blend in portions of waste paper with new fiber. In glass, cullet is segregated by color and if clean enough is used in clear glass; if of dark color, cullet is used in dark-colored glass.

By far the largest recycler of post-consumption scrap is the steel industry. Its products are very durable and widely used in products that are readily collected for recycling (like auto wrecks and appliances). According to the Steel Recycling Institute (SRI), the industry routinely recovers more than 70 percent of its output again as scrap; the industry reached a 75.7 percent recycling rate in 2005. Rates vary from year-to-year reflecting economic conditions. The lowest apparent recovery rates in steel coincide with the greatest dispersion of the product. Thus recycled can recovery accounted for 63 percent of steel used in cans and reinforcing bar recovery for 65 percent of re-bar production in 2005, but rates were 102 percent for autos, 96 percent for appliances, and 87.5 percent for structural beams and parts. These rates are calculated by expressing scrap collected from a category (e.g., appliances) with total steel consumed by that category; hence, in the case of autos, more steel was recovered from cars in 2005 than used in cars that year.


In the energy-intensive industries—like steel, paper, aluminum, and glass—use of waste materials reduces energy costs because the wastes are already at a higher state of purity than incoming raw materials like ores, logs, and sand. To be sure, energy is required for collecting and transporting such "previously owned" raw materials back to production plants again. In many cases shredding or cutting the waste products requires additional energy. Autos are partially disassembled—seats and engine and electronics are removed. Newsprint requires deinking—another energy-consumptive activity. But energy use is almost always less than required in processing virgin raw materials. For this reason easily accessible products, especially those that are bulky and thus already "aggregated" (like junked cars), are the most easily recycled. Those that require a high degree of sorting and consume the most resources at the front end and are least reused. If energy costs rise in the future—as indeed they are very likely to do—recycling will intensify. In such an environment, human labor ("calories") will become less expensive than machine labor ("BTUs"). As we approach an era of very high energy prices, recycling may offer—as it already does—significant opportunities for small business enterprises in mining our wastes for gold.


Davis, Mackenzie L., and Susan J. Masten. Principles of Environmental Engineering and Sciences. McGraw Hill, 2004

Green, Jen. Waste and Recycling. Chrysalis Books Group, 2004.

"Set Up an Office Recycling System." Business Journal—Milwaukee. 11 February 2000.

"Steel Recycling in the U.S. Continues its Record Pace in 2005." Press Release. Steel Recycling Institute. 25 April 2006.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Municipal Solid Waste." August 2005. Available from Retrieved on 16 May 2006.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2003. April 2005.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Recycling." Available from Retrieved on 15 May 2006.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Summary of the EPA Municipal Solid Waste Program." Available from Retrieved on 16 May 2006.

                                   Darnay, ECDI