Recycling programs comprise three elements in a continuum represented by the "chasing arrows" symbol: collection of recyclable materials from the waste stream, processing the commodities into new products, and purchasing products containing recycled materials. It has been estimated that each office worker in America produces from one-half to one and one-half pounds of solid waste each day, of which 70 to 90 percent is paper. Whereas paper comprises at least 40 percent of the American waste stream and businesses contribute one-third of the nation's solid waste, recycling programs in the business world commonly address waste paper. Corporate recycling programs, however, have come to include other types of waste, including glass, chemicals, oils, plastics, and metals.


Although the word "recycle" was not coined until the late 1960s, recycling has been a trash disposal option for centuries. Native Americans and early settlers routinely reused resources and avoided waste. Materials recovery was also a significant contributor to the U.S. effort during World War II, when businesses and citizens alike salvaged metal, paper, rubber, and other scarce commodities for military use. But the emergence of the "throwaway society" of the 1950s helped extinguish any residual recycling impetus. With seemingly unlimited landfill space, disposable and single-use products and packaging became the norm in the ensuing decades. Recycling did not regain popularity until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when environmental concerns rose to the fore in a 'green revolution." The first national Earth Day celebration in 1970 heralded antilitter campaigns, the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and some municipal and corporate recycling programs.

Legislation during that period provided an additional impetus for recycling programs, especially at the federal level. The Solid Waste Disposal Act established resource recovery goals as a priority for U.S. environmental and energy conservation programs. The Resource Recovery Act of 1970 amended the previous legislation by mandating paper recycling and procurement of recycled products in federal agencies wherever economically feasible. The well-known Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 completely revised both acts, imposing requirements regarding hazardous waste disposal and mandating the recycling of nonhazardous waste in federal facilities. The legislation included the requirement that federal agencies" purchase items that contain the highest percentage of recovered materials practicable given their availability, price and quality." Deposit laws enacted around the country encouraged recycling of glass beverage bottles and aluminum cans; recycling of aluminum cans reached an all-time high of 66.5 percent in 1997.

The EPA and the General Services Administration, which were jointly charged with administration of federal government recycling programs, launched "Use It Again, Sam," an earnest and widespread federal office paper recycling initiative, in 1976. Within two years, 90 federal agencies and their 115,000 employees were recycling, enjoying the support of President Jimmy Carter and guided by a comprehensive, EPA-issued manual. The recycling program declined in the 1980s, however, due to a lack of enforcement and oversight, budget cuts, apathy, and the EPA's concentration on administration of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act of 1980 (Superfund) hazardous waste cleanup program. Many state and local governments around the country stepped in to fill this void in the ensuing decade. Overall, however, low disposal costs relegated recycling to little more than an afterthought of solid-waste management in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In the late 1980s, however, several factors converged to revive interest in recycling as an attractive alternative to traditional disposal. Evidence of toxic leaks from, and dangerous buildups of methane gas in, landfills around the country brought closures, increased regulation, and public opposition to location and expansion of landfills. Incineration was briefly tested as an expedient solution to the mounting solid-waste crisis, but problems with stack emissions and the disposal of toxic ash undermined that option. Public recognition of the crisis crested in 1987, when a garbage barge originating from New York City traveled to six states and three countries before dumping its load back in its home state. The number of operating landfills in the United States decreased from 18,500 in 1979 to 6,500 in 1988, and it was projected that by the year 2000 only 3,250 landfills would be open for business. The dearth of disposal options in the latter years of the 1980s caused disposal expenses to rise dramatically: landfill costs in some regions (especially the Northeast and Northwest) doubled and tripled within a few years. At the same time, some states (e.g., Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut) adopted mandatory recycling legislation. These factors combined with increasing consumer demand for environmental responsibility to prompt a second green revolution that swept the country—including the business world—in the 1990s.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, all but five states implemented recycling and waste reduction programs in response to the landfill crisis. Although the majority of states with recycling programs failed to meet their goals, solid-waste disposal was reduced to the point that, by 1997, most regions of the United States reported adequate landfill availability, and landfill tipping fees were on the decrease nationwide.

Increased globalization of business in the 1990s, along with the ever increasing strength of the environmental movement worldwide, also stimulated the development of recycling programs outside the United States. The adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance, spurred the Mexican government to announce plans to develop a formal recycling industry by 1997. Other national economies, including those of France, Germany, Japan, Korea, the People's Republic of China, and Taiwan, either renewed or expanded their commitments to the recycling of paper, steel, plastics, and other solid-waste materials, in response to both international pressures and internal political developments.


Recycling programs emerged as "good business for business" in the last decade of the 20th century for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, recycling holds out the "bottom line" benefit of reducing waste disposal expenses. It also offered substantial, positive benefits for the local and global environment: recycling one ton of office paper saves 17 trees, conserves enough energy to meet the requirements of at least 4,000 people, and saves three cubic yards of landfill space. Futhermore, the use of recycled materials can reduce the production costs of glass, aluminum, and paper products. Also, businesses that market materials salvaged from discarded equipment and materials have emerged. Recyclers have discovered, for example, that metals including gold, silver, and platinum can be extracted from discarded telecommunications and electronic equipment.

Fort Howard Corporation (which is now known as Fort James Corporation following a merger), is a sterling example of the practicability of recycling programs. Established in 1919, the company made its first official commitment to the environment in 1930. Recycling became an economic imperative during the 1940s, when a shortage of pulp pushed Fort Howard to reprocess waste paper. By the late 1970s the paper manufacturer had reduced its use of virgin pulp to "an almost negligible percentage," according to a 1993 article in Managing Office Technology. Fort Howard worked with municipal governments near plants to collect household and office waste paper, winning the EPA's first Administrator's Award for Recycling Leadership in 1990 and keeping more than one million tons of waste paper out of landfills each year in the 1990s.

Although the paper industry greatly increased its recycling capacity, the proliferation of direct mail promotional pieces ("junk mail") led to a perceived increase in the amount of waste paper being generated in the late 1990s. According to industry statistics, however, direct mail advertising accounts for only 2.1 percent of municipal solid waste, and 13.9 percent of direct-mail pieces are recycled.

Adopting a recycling program can enhance a company's reputation with its customers, employees, and surrounding community. As environmentalism gained ascendancy in the 1990s, a corporate recycling program also offered a substantial basis for green marketing. IBM Corporation focuses its recycling programs on environmental and public relations benefits. Like so many other American concerns, IBM got its first shot at recycling by salvaging metals during World War II. The oil crisis of the 1970s provided the impetus for the corporation's energy conservation programs. The company undertook its office paper recycling program around that time, but still found room for improvement in the early 1990s. By that time, almost two-thirds of IBM's more than 9,000 employees worked in an office environment. Internal investigations estimated that high quality white bond and computer paper constituted 70 percent (or 512 tons annually) of its office waste. With participation rates of about 80 percent, IBM expected to recover 480 tons of wastepaper annually, and set a goal of 50 percent waste reduction. In the 1990s the corporation expanded its program to include wooden pallets, lawn clippings, and corrugated cardboard.

If for no other reason, many firms were compelled to reduce their solid waste to comply with legislation. AT&T undertook paper recycling in New Jersey in 1984, three years before mandatory recycling legislation took effect in that state. The model program's waste-paper sales earned $372,000 in 1987 alone, in addition to saving disposal costs. The program was expanded nationwide in the 1990s, and set a 60 percent recycling goal. In 1992 the company recycled 12,565 tons of waste.

Some firms report the best success rates with a comprehensive recycling program encompassing their entire waste stream. Veryfine Products, Inc. of Littleton, Massachusetts, started its recycling program in 1982 with copy and computer paper. In 1989, with the enforcement of EPA waste-water treatment and source reduction standards imminent, the company designed a "state-of-the-art," $8.5 million water purification plant, as well as water-conserving cooling towers. By the early 1990s Veryfine was recycling 90 to 95 percent of all solid waste generated in the juice making process, including glass, aluminum, paper, plastic, pulp, cardboard, wood, and steel. The program included an environmental newsletter, recycling committee, and suggestion system. Veryfine's president, Samuel Rowse, played a vital leadership role in these programs. In 1993 he noted that the corporation's programs had not only avoided nearly $400,000 in landfill costs in recent years, but also gained $158,000 through the recovery and sale of aluminum and glass. Rowse asserted that "Fragmented attempts at recycling, source reduction and environmentally friendly packaging are not enough to make a significant difference in the years ahead. Rather, comprehensive environmental efforts should be integrated into every facet of the business—from the front office to the shipping and-receiving dock."

Other food industries also saw the economic and social benefits of recycling. By 1998 two secondary markets for recycled cooking oil had emerged in the United States. The first, serving restaurants, merely reprocessed the oil for further use in cooking. The second, serving operators of diesel engines and equipment, modified the used cooking oil to create "biodiesel" fuel, which burns more efficiently and with less emission of pollutants than traditional diesel fuel.


The federal government's 1993 Office Recycling Program Guide notes five basic, interconnected components of a comprehensive recycling program: education, collection, marketing, procurement, and monitoring and evaluation.

Education encompasses training of both leaders and participants in a recycling program. Studies have shown that the most successful recycling programs involve top-level management and require employee participation. Experts advise the appointment of a recycling coordinator or committee responsible for setting up, implementing, and monitoring the program. Some organizations employ environmental consultants to perform this function. Any recycling coordinator's first order of business is self-education. There are a wide variety of resources available to personnel charged with organizing recycling programs. Regional EPA offices and state-affiliated natural resource departments throughout the country offer information packets and recycling kits.

While recycling technically encompasses collecting, processing, and marketing, experts urge source reduction as an integral aspect of successful corporate recycling programs. Source reduction precludes waste management and its costs. Experts suggest several simple ways to reduce waste and reuse resources. Copy and write on both sides of a sheet of paper. Use coffee mugs instead of disposable cups. Reuse packing material and/or make it from shredded waste paper. Ensure that office equipment has a long life by negotiating strong service contracts. Route documents, or use electronic mail, instead of disseminating multiple copies. Have laser printer and copier toner cartridges refilled. Sears, Roebuck and Company's packaging reduction program, implemented in the early 1995, saved the retailer an estimated $5 million annually. McDonald's well-publicized partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund greatly reduced its packaging." Pollution Prevention Pays," a source reduction program started in 1975 by 3M Company, generated enough employee suggestions to save more than $500 million in operational costs by 1989.

After learning about recycling in general, recycling coordinators should acclimate themselves to the particulars of their company's waste-management program through a waste audit. A waste audit should note the sources, amounts and types of trash generated; the current methods and cost of disposal; and the volume of potentially recyclable trash. Based on these findings, leaders of recycling programs can determine which materials to target. Some experts advise beginning recyclers to limit their programs to one type of waste, usually high-quality bond and computer paper. Once participants have grown accustomed to recycling, the program can be expanded to include aluminum, newspaper, plastics, glass, and cardboard, for example. Some companies eventually recycle virtually all their waste. The types and volumes of materials to be recycled will govern the methods of collection employed.

Collection comprises the nuts-and-bolts logistics of separating, gathering, and storing recyclables from trash at their source. The most common methods are the desktop container, a series of designated containers, or a central collection area, but some businesses employ vendor sorting, where mixed recyclables are stored together and sorted off-site by the waste hauler. These containers are usually brought by janitorial or mailroom staff to a storage area, where the containers are kept until pickup by the waste-paper dealer. Some companies dealing with sensitive, proprietary, or confidential information may also need to consider destruction (by shredding, for example) as part of this step. Maintenance of quality standards is paramount in this aspect of a successful recycling program. Similar materials, such as white and colored paper, may have a market separately, but are nearly worthless when mixed. Processors of most types of paper discourage commingling of "stickies" (labels, stickers, and tape), food, and other contaminants. Although source separation has proven to be the best collection method, a new technology from Fort James Corporation marketed under the trade name Office Pack will allow businesses to collect virtually all grades of paper in one container. Such technological advances characterize the field of recycling, and are sure to continue as recycling enters the mainstream.

Marketing the recyclable materials to a processor involves research and contracting. Waste-paper dealers can be found in local phone directories or through contact with the Paper Stock Institute of America. The El Environmental Services Directory, "the nation's largest, most in-depth directory of environmental service providers," lists and describes more than 2,000 vendors. This component of the program obviously incorporates outside forces, including the solvency of the contractor and vagaries of the waste-paper market. It holds out the prospect, however, of converting disposal expenses into profits from scrap marketing.

Procurement helps "close the recycling loop" by arranging for the purchase and use of supplies made from recycled materials. These can include newsprint, tissue products, paperboard, and printing and writing papers. Some recycling experts suggest that companies purchase only materials that they can recycle, for example, only white paper or envelopes without plastic windows. The Environmental Products Guide, published by the federal government's General Services Administration, lists nearly 3,000 products that meet or exceed the EPA's guidelines for recycled content products. First published in 1989, The Official Recycled Products Guide includes nearly 4,000 entries on recycled products, with indexes, classifications, and cross-references. Although sometimes overlooked, procurement is a vital component of recycling programs. Some purchasing officers, in fact, report returns of 10 to 25 percent of materials' original purchase price. More importantly, however, without sufficient demand for recycled products, there will be no incentive for recyclers to reprocess waste. This aspect of office recycling in America appears to be lacking. A 1991 Purchasing World survey noted that while 87 percent of respondents collected used or excess materials for recycling, only half of the respondents' companies purchased products made from recycled materials for use in their own operations. This shortfall has been called "recycling's greatest problem" in the 1990s. In fact, the market for recycled paper products has been characterized by meteoric rises and falls. Between January and June 1994, for instance, the cost of recyclable paper rose from $18 to $110 per ton before falling to $80 per ton in November of the same year. The price rose once again to a peak of $200 per ton in June 1995, and then plummeted to $25 per ton by the following December. In the face of such shifts, manufacturers of recycled paper products often have difficulty competing with those using virgin materials.

Each aspect of the recycling program must be monitored and evaluated for efficiency and progress. A cost benefit analysis of the program can strengthen management support and encourage expansion to other areas of the company and/or other products in the waste stream. Periodic bulletins noting the number of trees, kilowatts of energy, and gallons of water saved by the program can keep enthusiasm high.


Another issue facing recyclers today is the liability assumed by manufacturers of environmentally hazardous products, such as oils, chemicals, and batteries. The Institute of Scrap and Recycling Industries (ISRI) provides a variety of services for manufacturers of environmentally hazardous recycled products in an effort to ensure that recyclers stay abreast of manufacturing and environmental regulations affecting their present and future operations.

Recycling industries have increasingly been subject to public scrutiny as awareness of environmental issues increases. Manufacturers and recyclers of plastics have, in particular, come in for criticism, as many forms of plastics that bear the chasing arrow symbol are very difficult to recycle, and usually are used only once. Increased scrutiny has led to industrial response, however, and the rate of recycling of plastics polymers in the United States has risen from just I percent in the early l990s to an estimated 50 percent by the year 2000.

In light of the economic, political and social influences that came to bear on the solid waste issue in the late 20th century, hundreds of major American businesses have launched recycling and waste reduction programs. Although the concept has received widespread media attention, the EPA reported in 1993 that less than 5 percent of offices in the United States participated in office paper recycling programs.

SEE ALSO : Environmental Law and Business

[ April Dougal Gasbarre ,

updated by Grant Eldridge ]


"Aluminum Can Recycling Hits a Record." Metal/Center News 38, no. 5 (April 1998): 99.

Beverly, Dawn. Business Recycling Manual. New York: INFORM, Inc. and Recourse Systems, Inc., 1991.

Brown, Robert. "Cooking Oil Recycling Projects Are Moving into the Mainstream." Chemical Market Reporter 253, no. 12 (23 March 1998): 8.

Curry, Gloria. "Increasingly Cost-Effective, Recycling Programs Continue to Grow." Office 118 (August 1993): 30-31, 51,55.

Erdmann, Bobbi. "Old Electronic Equipment Worth Its Weight in Gold." World Wastes 41, no. 8 (August 1998): 6.

Fernberg, Patricia M. "No More Wasting Away: The New Face of Environmental Stewardship." Managing Office Technology 38, no. 8 (August 1993): 12-19.

Goldstein, Nora, and Jim Glenn. "The State of Garbage in America." Biocycle 38, no. 5 (May 1997): 71.

Grogan, Peter L. "China Syndrome." BioCycle 37, no. 5 (May 1996): 86.

——. "European Influence." BioCycle 38, no. 9 (September 1997): 86.

Hoeffer, El. "ISRI Priorities: Superfund, Quality, Safety." Iron Age New Steel 12, no. 7 (July 1996): 39.

Hoke, Henry R. "Junk Mail: Waste Not, Want Not." Direct Marketing 59, no. 4 (August 1996): 80.

Kornegay, Jennifer. "Security Goes Green." Security Management 35 (August 1991): 95-96.

Larane, Andre. "Recycling Is Standard in French Auto Industry." World Wastes 41, no. I (January 1998): 8.

MacEachern, Diane. Save Our Planet. New York: Dell Publishing, 1990.

"More Mixing, Better Paper Diversion." BioCycle (August 1993): 60-61.

Office Paper Recycling Guide. St. Louis: Federal Executive Board, 1992.

Ortbal, John. "How to Cultivate an Office Recycling Program." Modern Office Technology (April 1991): 32-36.

Rowse, Samuel. "A Veryfine Approach to Environmental Awareness." Beverage World 112 (October 1993): 76-78.

"The Seven Myths of 'Recycled' Plastic." Earth Island Journal 11, no. 4 (fall 1996): 26.

Steuteville, Robert. "Corporate Recycling Reaps Savings." BioCycle 34 (August 1993): 34-36.

Strong, Debra L. Recycling in America: A Reference Handbook. 2nd ed. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Stundza, Tom. "Treat Scrap as Trash and You Throw Money Away." Purchasing 11 (18 July 1991): 66-69.

U.S. Federal Supply Service. The Environmental Products Guide. Washington: U.S. General Services Administration, 1994.

U.S. General Accounting Office. Wastepaper Recycling: Programs of Civil Agencies Waned During the 1980s. Washington: U.S. General Accounting Office, [1989].

U.S. Office of Administrative and Management Services. Office Recycling Program Guide. Washington: U.S. Office of Administrative and Management Services, [1993].

Webb, Nan. "Recycling Tasks Are Part of the Job." Purchasing World 35 (March 1991): 42-43.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: