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Recycling is the process of converting waste products into reusable materials. Recycling differs from reuse, which simply means using a product again. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 30 percent of U.S. solid waste (i.e., the waste that is normally handled through residential and commercial garbage-collection systems) is recycled. About 15 percent is incinerated and about 55 percent goes into landfills.

Recycling is appealing because it seems to offer a way to simultaneously reduce the amount of waste disposed in landfills and save natural resources. During the late 1980s, as environmental concerns grew, public opinion focused on recycling as a prime way to protect the environment. Governments, businesses, and the public made strenuous efforts to recycle. By 2000, the recycling rate had nearly doubled the 1990 rate of 16 percent. A big portion of the increase has been in yard trimmings and food scraps collected for composting.

Recycling, however, is not always economically efficient or even environmentally helpful. The popular emphasis on recycling stems partly from misconceptions. One misconception is that landfills and incinerators are environmentally risky. It is true that at one time landfills were constructed to fill in swamps (sometimes to reduce insect infestation). If material leaked out from the landfill, it could contaminate nearby waters. But today landfills are sited away from wetlands. They are designed to keep their contents dry, and monitoring programs ensure that any leakage that does occur is caught before it causes harm.

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