Over the past few decades, recycling has become a central component of many business operations in the United States. Recycling is valued for the cost-savings associated with some programs as well as its general environment-friendly aspects. Recycling programs are comprised of three elements in a continuum represented by the well-known "chasing arrows" symbol that adorns recyclable products: 1) collection of recyclable materials from the waste stream; 2) processing of those materials into new products; and 3) purchasing of products containing recycled materials.


The importance of recycling programs in the business world to the environment can hardly be over-stated. Businesses account for approximately one-third of the United States' total solid waste. As of 2000, for example, a study cited in the Business Journal—Milwaukee indicated that each office worker in America produced between 120 and 150 pounds of recyclable office paper per year, only 10 percent of which was typically recycled. Not surprisingly, paper accounts for a higher percentage (an estimated 40 percent) of the American waste stream than any other material. Many corporate recycling programs reflect this reality, and even businesses with exceedingly modest recycling programs sometimes take steps to collect wastepaper for recycling.

Recycling first emerged as an ongoing component of business operations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as concerns about the pace at which the United States and other nations were consuming natural resources became widespread. (Previous recycling campaigns, such as the ones introduced in America during World War II, were relatively short-term efforts that were not predicated on environmental concerns.) The first national Earth Day celebration in 1970 heralded anti-litter campaigns, the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the introduction of some of the first municipal and corporate recycling programs.

Legislation during that period provided an additional impetus for recycling programs, especially in the federal government. The Solid Waste Disposal Act had 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, 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 non-hazardous 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." Around the same time, deposit laws that encouraged recycling of glass beverage bottles were passed in several states around the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration (GSA), which were jointly charged with administration of the program, launched "Use It Again, Sam," an earnest and widespread federal office paper recycling program, in 1976. Within two years, 90 federal agencies and their 115,000 employees were recycling, their efforts guided by a comprehensive, EPA-issued manual. The federal recycling program declined in the 1980s. Many state and local governments around the country stepped in to fill this void in the ensuing decade, but overall, 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. Growing concerns about both the proliferation and toxic characteristics of landfills around the country brought closures, increased regulation, higher costs, and public opposition to location and expansion of landfills. Other options, such as incinerators, were explored, but these proved controversial as well. Another important factor was a general increase in anxiety about the state of America's (and the world's) environment. Finally, growing numbers of companies came to see environmental friendliness as a viable means of attracting consumers.

By the late 1980s, a number of eastern states had adopted mandatory recycling legislation. This trend toward recycling legislation, combined with increasing consumer demand for environmental responsibility and corporate frustration with rising waste disposal expenses, prompted a modest revitalization of recycling programs in the 1990s.


Given the popularity of recycled products and the various benefits that accrue from being known as a good corporate citizen, most businesses are eager to use terms like "recyclable" and "recycled content" on their packaging and in their advertising. But as J. Stephen Shi and Jane M. Kane pointed out in Business Horizons, the government has clearly defined those terms to prevent businesses from making misleading or fraudulent recycling claims. "For a product to be labeled recyclable," wrote Shi and Kane, "the product must be easily collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from what would generally be considered trash and then used for making a new package or product." They go on to note that companies also have a responsibility to qualify whether it is the product or the packaging (or both) that is recyclable, or to qualify claims of responsibility if the product is purchased in an area with limited recycling facilities.

"Recycled content," meanwhile, refers to goods made out of materials that would have otherwise been thrown out for good, relegated to a landfill or incinerator. "To qualify as having recycled content," wrote Shi and Kane, "the materials can come from waste produced in either the manufacturing process or post-consumer use [materials recycled by consumers]…. Again, manufacturers must be careful to indicate exactly what part—the product or the package—is made from recyclable material. If there is more than one component to the packaging, the manufacturer must indicate exactly which part of the packaging is made from recycled content. An example of this type of packaging is a paperboard box that is made of recycled materials covered by plastic shrink wrap that is not." Finally, they warn that manufacturers are guilty of misleading consumers if they claim that a product is composed of recycled content in instances where the company was merely following normal industry practice. "A manufacturer that routinely gathers spilled raw materials after trimming finished products and then adds the trimmings to virgin material for further production of the same product cannot claim that its product is made out of recycled content," they explained.

Business consultants, officials, and environmental groups all recognize that some of the regulations regarding permissible recycling/environmental claims are complex, but they urge business owners not to let this fact scare them off. Full descriptions of the rules governing recycling claims are available, and the potential benefits—both to the business and the environment—can often make the additional research an ultimately worthwhile endeavor.


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

EDUCATION Education encompasses training of both leaders and participants in recycling practices. Not surprisingly, the most successful recycling programs are ones that have the active involvement of business owners and managers and the full participation of employees. Observers of successful recycling initiatives note that this involvement is much more likely to occur if the company owners and work force are well-informed about the reasons for recycling and the ways in which recycling practices can be effectively instituted. There are a wide variety of resources available to businesses interested in organizing recycling programs. Regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offices and state-affiliated natural resource departments throughout the country offer information packets and recycling kits.

After learning about recycling in general, business owners and managers should continue the education process by studying the operational factors that will be unique to their company's recycling efforts. One of the most effective ways in which this can be accomplished is through the use of 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, cardboard and other materials. The types and volumes of materials to be recycled will govern the methods of collection employed.

COLLECTION Collection comprises the nuts-and-bolts logistics of separating, gathering, and storing recyclables from trash at their source. The most common methods of collection employed in the workplace 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 they are kept until they are picked up. 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 to this facet of a successful recycling program. Similar materials, like 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, new technological advances will almost certainly relieve some of this separation pressure in the future.

MARKETING Marketing recyclable materials to a processor involves research and contracting. Dealers in waste paper—the most commonly recycled material—can be found in local phone directories or through contact with the Paper Stock Institute of America. The EI Environmental Services Directory, "the nation's largest, most in-depth directory of environmental service providers," lists and describes over 2,000 vendors. There are many variables that entrepreneurs and small business owners should heed when seeking a buyer for their recyclable materials, however. Foremost among these is usually cost. "The quality of a particular collected material greatly affects the price that interested buyers are willing to pay," stated the Encyclopedia of the Environment. "Uncontaminated materials—for example, glass that is free of stones, ceramics, or other material—command prices substantially greater than contaminated materials. To help in evaluating the quality of a material, government and industry organizations have developed numerous quality standards. The actual price of a material depends on additional factors such as its relative abundance and the subsequent cost of transporting it to manufacturers."

PROCUREMENT Although it is sometimes over-looked, procurement is a vital component of recycling programs. Procurement helps "close the recycling loop," for it is the process whereby companies arrange to purchase and use supplies made from recycled materials. Most analysts of recycling programs contend that implementation of this stage of recycling often lags behind other stages. Recent studies indicate that while an overwhelming majority of businesses do have recycling collection systems of one kind or another in place, a far lower percentage of those businesses purchase recycled materials for use in their own operations.

This is due in part to the costs associated with developing additional capacity to use "secondary"—rather than virgin—materials. As the Encyclopedia of the Environment observed, "market conditions must be appropriate for companies to even consider new investments, credit must be available for financing projects, and sites have to be found and regulatory permits obtained."

MONITORING AND EVALUATION Each aspect of the recycling program should be monitored and evaluated for efficiency and progress. This is especially important for smaller companies, where flawed practices can have a more pronounced impact on fundamental business health. 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.


Cichonski, Thomas J., and Karen Hill. Recycling Sourcebook. Gale Research, Inc., 1993.

Curry, Gloria. "Increasingly Cost-Effective, Recycling Programs Continue to Grow." Office. August 1993.

Eblen, Ruth A., and William R. Eblen, eds. The Encyclopedia of the Environment. Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Kimball, Debi. Recycling in America: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, 1992.

Office Recycling Program Guide. Office of Administrative and Management Services, 1993.

Ortbal, John. "How to Cultivate an Office Recycling Program." Modern Office Technology. April 1991.

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

Shi, J. Stephen, and Jane M. Kane. "Green Issues." Business Horizons. January-February 1996.

Steuteville, Robert. "Corporate Recycling Reaps Savings." BioCycle. August 1993.

Webb, Nan. "Recycling Tasks Are Part of the Job." Purchasing World. March 1991.

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