How Recycling Works

Recycling Centers

Be on the lookout for recycling centers in your area.
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Recycling programs around the world take four main forms:

Curbside pickup

Special trucks fitted with separate containers for different types of recyclable materials travel city streets just like garbage trucks. Workers do a preliminary sorting of materials as they are thrown into the truck. Some communities require homeowners to sort and separate recyclables themselves, but this can reduce participation rates.


Drop-off centers

A central location is set up to accept recyclable materials, which the homeowners transport themselves. Even communities with curbside pickup may still have drop-off centers for the reclamation of hazardous materials like paint or propane gas.

Buy-back centers

These centers are similar to drop-off centers except they pay homeowners for their items based on market values. These are more commonly seen as part of a retail business, such as an auto scrap yard that buys scrap metal by weight.

Deposit/refund programs

These programs are familiar to anyone in the United States who has ever purchased a beverage in a can or bottle. The deposit -- typically five cents -- is added to the sale price. You can then return the empty bottle or can to a collection center and redeem it for a refund of the deposit.

Many communities struggle to break even with their recycling programs, with cost benefits depending on widespread participation, which is hard to accomplish in large urban areas. If a municipality has committed to a recycling program, it typically becomes illegal to throw away recyclable materials. However, people are rarely prosecuted or fined for this offense.

While the United States recycles more than 30 percent of its solid waste, some European countries have a much higher rate. Germany, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands enjoy recycling rates from 40 to 60 percent. However, Greece, Ireland and Britain are notorious for low recycling rates. In the developing world, rates are even worse, with recycling all but nonexistent in many nations [source: Essential Guide].