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Recycling Practices Among Latinos in the U.S. Essay

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Updated: Mar 9th, 2022


I wish to express my most profound gratitude to Norman Nimmo, the Municipal Recycling Coordinator for the City of Lawrence, for allowing me the opportunity to meet him to discuss the town’s new waste management and recycling program, and providing me with valuable references. My sincere appreciation also goes to Tom Lynch, for giving me a tour of the Hudson, NH transfer facility, which processes Lawrence city’s recycled material. My gratefulness to Dr. R M Jackson, professor of English at UNH, for guiding me to use my literacy in this project from an enhanced perspective, and for directing me the relevant articles on the subject of this research. I would also like to place on record my sincere gratitude to Tom Billbrough for providing insightful feedback on the multiple drafts of the survey and this report. My heartfelt thanks also to Maxima Perez and Laura Perez for distributing printed surveys, and to Natasha Urena and Jennifer Reyes whose contribution by going door to door in Lawrence with me to census individual’s recycling practice were instrumental in this work.

I dedicate this research project to my four year old daughter Alleyah, who had to sacrifice her daily routine for many weeks why I was handling this project.

Executive Summary

Recycling is a highly accepted practice of stewardship in the United States, and Latinos represent a significant portion of the US population. However, studies claim that most of them have little involvement with recycling efforts. Informal recycling is a common phenomenon in Latin America and individuals that live in extreme poverty like waste pickers, collect items directly from dumps for their survival. Families of modest living pass used items, such as clothes, furniture, etc., among family members and friends to augment their resources. In contrast, programmed recycling is for an elite group of educated people albeit a very small percentage, that understand environmental impact and economic advantages of this system.

Multiple studies have established that Hispanic of low socio-economic levels, living in the US, alienate themselves from environmental efforts such as recycling. For the most part, this occurs due to the lack of awareness in the matter and/or personal cultural experiences. Meanwhile, more educated and those in the higher socio-economic class, tend to engage in environmental efforts. This is different for the second and successive generations of Latino immigrants, that are born and raised in the US who express more interest in environmental matters. A survey conducted in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a city with high Latino population, found analog results with the remarkable difference that Latinos are receptive to recycling, once they understand the concept.


People, at every stage of their development, remained closely connected with their external environment. Unfortunately, ever since the occurrence of the Industrial Revolution humans began their dangerous interference with the natural environment and this trend continued to gain intensity with the passage of time. In the first century of the referenced era, the United States had produced a modest volume of waste that had been managed through a “dilute and disperse” process, where factories dispose their waste in nearby rivers. As the technological and economic progress gained momentum so did the production of waste. A new waste management method, “concentrate and contain,” consisting of storing refuse in tanks and/or burying it, substituted the earlier practice. Unfortunately, neither of former, nor the latter could eliminate the hazards associated, posing a threat to public health and natural ecosystems.

The problem of continuously growing accumulation of waste due to population increase was addressed with a new concept called the integrated waste management (IWM), which emphasized the three R’s of reducing waste: reusing materials, and recycling. Yet, solid-waste management continues to be a problem in the Unites States as well as other parts of the world, particularly developing countries like Latin America. In these nations is common to dispose waste in open dumps that are not regulated, which consequently become potential health hazards. Individuals may find illegal waste dumping convenient and inexpensive as they might not be measuring the environmental consequences from this practice. However, people perspective on this issue can be change by creating awareness through environmental educational programs to teach these individuals that a lot of the dumped material can be recycled and reused. The main aim of environmental science is addressing the interaction of the people and nature in the context of such factors as waste management, “urbanization, and sustainability within a global perspective” (Botkin and Keller).


Recycling, which is entirely different from the concept of reuse, is the process of using abandoned materials to create new products. Nature is the best example of recycling, where the fluxes of natural cycles (water, carbon, nitrogen among others cycles) have remained intact theoretically, preserving the same amount of material throughout the history of the earth, with the exception of changes due to human interference. Nature always serves as a perfect model for human to follow and informal forms of recycling have existed since the beginning of humanity. Organized recycling is an idea that started to evolve in the nineteen century, and has become progressively better over time. Recycling is based on the concept that there is a dual benefit in reusing products from a economic and environmental perspective. Ideally, recycling permits us to reuse a product at a lower cost than what we would have incurred if the product were made from raw materials. Besides, it also helps in conserving natural resources, minimizing waste disposal and the potential environmental contamination that can results from waste storage. The net economic and environmental benefits of recycling over its costs are significant, when both environmental and monetary factors are carefully examined and taken into account. Therefore, its important to understand and modify, if necessary, individual perspectives and involvement in the context of recycling.

Overview of the past –Recycling History

Waste management and recycling can be perceived as inherently intertwined. The problem of handling solid waste dates back to the time when people have begun to settle in communities, approximately around 10,000 BC. During this period, the total population of the world was probably less than a few million, but enough for people to notice the accretion of waste, particularly in thickly populated areas. At this time, the accumulation of garbage was treated as an aesthetic issue: refuse looked repulsive, smelled bad and attracted pests. Therefore, procedures were prescribed to collect and remove trash away from colonized areas. Athens is known to have started the first municipal dump in the Western hemisphere, around 400 BC, where waste was disposed in open areas and left exposed. Yet, not much attention was given to the methods used to accomplish removing the garbage out of sight as well as mitigating the environmental repercussions of practices such as incineration. Though recycling existed during this time it mainly stemmed from the pressing need rather than as a scientific means. (Kimball).

The emergence of agriculture as a way of livelihood caused greater density of people in specific locations and the Industrial Revolution, with improvement in health care and the supply of food, entailed an exponential increase in human population. This, in turn, resulted in more waste and the problems associated with the open dump and incineration practices which were in vogue during the time became evident as vectors diseases spread. Scientists began to gain a better understanding of the disadvantages of these waste disposal methods and negative impacts such practices have on the environment. As a result, authorities implemented more appropriate methods of waste management like controlled dumps, which were covered with layers of dirt at the end of the day. Subsequently, recycling practices emerged, not in the context of saving the environment, but to satisfy individual needs. For example, during World War II, the US used to recycle scrap metals and paper for the war effort. However, the economic prosperity of the post war created a “disposal industry” that promoted the idea of single used items as a necessity of modern life-style. (Kimball).

The discovery of toxins in the land, water and air, as presented in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, created consciousness about the negative impacts that humans cause on the earth. This led to an environmental movement with the motive to protect our planet. In fact, the US government created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, as a response to public outcry on environmental concerns. Subsequently, it also passed a federal law, known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976, to regulate the disposal of solid waste. Four years later, in 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund, to establish procedures for release of perilous substances in the atmosphere, to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites. Meanwhile, waste disposal continued to grow as a tangible and sensitive problem that worried many people. A particular incident in the spring of 1987, involving a vessel called Mobro, carrying 3100 tons of trash and wandering in the Atlantic Ocean with no place to unload its cargo, was highly publicized by the renowned media, such as Newsweek and Time magazines. This story created a sense of urgency to further refine the waste management practices.

While it is true that landfill space shortage has neither posed a problem in the past nor is it a predicament in the US today, with the exception of heavily populated areas such as New York, it is important to reduce waste and recycle it to manage this redundant source in an economical and efficient manner with a view to protect the environment. The advancement in modern technology and medicine, particularly in developed nations, has permitted prolongation of life expectancy besides allowing luxurious lifestyles to a larger number of people, with the addition of a wider range of commodities. Waste generation, obviously, is directly proportionate to the increase in population, and the additional commodities available to these individuals translate to consumerism where in a “throw away culture” becomes dominant. This further leads to the overuse of natural resources and consequent environmental degradation. As resources are used in plenty, the byproduct of waste also increases in tandem. A tangential evidence of this is 254 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste that the United States generated in the year 2007. Fortunately, according to the United States EPA’s MSW 2007 annual report, 63.3 million tons (from the 254.3 million tons produced) was recycled, representing a 25% reduction of garbage in the waste stream that did not require landfill disposal.

Recycling, Why Does It Matter?

Lomborg, a skeptical environmentalist, claims that recycling is not of much importance. He predicts that all American waste over the next century can be disposed in one single landfill of an area equivalent to less than 0.01% of the US land. Indeed, this is correct, however living next to a disposal site is not desirable proposition. The general attitude towards this is recognized as NIMBY or “not in my backyard.” Additionally, the United States presently count with meticulous engineered landfills that are safer than ever before. Yet, there is always the possibility of unforeseen and/or unpredicted events. Waste management problem remains a grave social concern in our society, mostly due to poor waste disposal practices that must be dealt with. An example of this is the “island of plastic waste,” floating in the Pacific Ocean as a result of the rampant, unlawful dump practices. Charles Moore, the oceanographer who discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” stated that this floating island of plastic waste contains more than 100 tons of garbage, and the volume continues to increase. This has a tremendous negative impact on the biota, killing animals and plants, and causing damage to the environmental in general. I personally witnessed the horrible consequences of disposing waste in the water in a visit to the Miami Aquarium. Phyllis, a female manatee, was found entangled in a nylon strapping, probably used to wrap a newspaper that was later thrown into the water. The string got wrapped around the mammal body, and as she grew, the strap cut deep into her flesh almost dividing her body in two halves, consequently causing severe infections. Events like this tell us that we must create consciousness among everyone to avoid actions that cause negative impacts on nature. A partial, but very significant solution to this would be increasing recycling efforts to recover plastics materials, particularly along the beach and ocean front, and thereby reducing the possible amount of trash that is dumped in water.

A fact also remains that the average cost of disposal at a landfill in the United States is approximately $40 per ton, and even the higher price of about $80 per ton, may be cheaper than the cost involved in recycling. However, the element of potential saving in terms of the cost of landfill disposal versus recycling seems immaterial when one considers the negative impacts on environment. It is also relevant that in areas where the concentration of population is quite high, the entire perspective changes. For example, heavily urbanized cities, such as New York, may have to incur hefty expenses for the option of exporting their waste out of state, or pay much higher rate for landfill disposal and this price is rapidly increasing. In fact, it is expected to exceed the cost of recycling within the timeframe of about a decade. Furthermore, the value of reusing/recycling derives a new perspective in the present economic scenario. More individuals are turning to “free-sharing” websites such as craigslist.com, shopgoodwill.com, and greenumbrella.org, to buy, sell, swap, give away, loan or borrow secondhand items. One is no longer restrained to buy used books because nowadays those are available for borrowing too, as if from a library. APPENDIX WITH LIST The truth is that when recycling programs for the right products are run efficiently, they signify tremendous environmental and economic investment. Despite these benefits, programmable recycling is not understood and/or practiced in areas of the world where it could be detrimental to the environment and the economic, as is the case with Latin America.

Recycling in Latin America

Refuse disposal is closely interconnected with climate change. Waste management, even when is efficient, requires procedures that entail pollution. Trash pickup trucks’ operation is one of the multiple steps that require the burning of fossil fuels, an agent responsible for producing carbon dioxide and one of the main heat-trapping greenhouse gas responsible for average global temperature increase, to properly dispose garbage (Strasser). The 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development asserted that ramifications of greenhouse effect might become evident, as early as the next century, increasing the average global temperatures enough to shift fertile land and raise sea levels to flood coastal areas (UNEP 42). This change would severely affect Latin America as its economic is heavily dependent on agriculture. The effects of climate change in Latin America have already been perceived, with the effects of el Nino, which tends to increase the geographic distribution of disease vector organisms, and amplifies the risk to contract vector born diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Furthermore, climate change is thought to be responsible for the re-infestation of Aedes aegypti mosquito, as presented in the figure below, the responsible agent for the transmission of yellow fever and dengue fever. Moreover, although programmable recycling is not practiced in Latin America, Latinos that migrate to the Untied States tend to accept and adopt the concept once they understand it. This happens mostly through acculturation, academic education and moving into a more elevated socio-economic status.

Michael Greenberg, a professor at the School of Planning and Public Policy in Rutgers University, surveyed 1513 New Jersey citizens in 2004 to determine the residents’ concerns about the environment. The results revealed that non-Hispanic black, non-Hispanic white, and English-speaking Hispanic Americans were more concerned about environmental pollution problems than Spanish-language Hispanic Americans (3). A national study conducted by Cassandra Johnson, J.M. Bowker and H. Ken Cordell, USDA Forest Service Scientists, showed that foreign-born Latinos were less likely than Whites to participate in environment related matters. Meanwhile US born Latinos had similar environmental interests and a tendency as the Whites (5). The survey, conducted among 120 citizens of Lawrence, Massachusetts, yielded comparable results, with the remarkable difference that the study isolated probable causes that refrain first generation Spanish-Speaking Latinos, one of the major ones being the of exposure to organized recycling efforts in their country of origin.

In the aforementioned survey, forty-nine participants identified themselves as first generation Latino/Hispanic. However, only one person, from Colombia, claimed to recycled paper and plastic in that person’s country of origin. The remaining forty-eight participants, from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Venezuela, specified that they did not recycle. Almost half of this group (21 of 48) specified that they are either not familiar with the term recycling or simply do not recycle. This is despite the fact that most of this participants (19 of 21) reported to have completed at least their high school studies and have been living in the US for three years or more. This is consistent with the recycling practice in their country of origin.

The Dominican Republic counts with isolated recycling efforts, but it does not have a structured program in place. According to the report that the Dominican Republic presented to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in the year 2003, the country produced 7,000 ton of waste daily, of which 25% is recyclable. However, only 1-2% is recycle primarily by “buzos” or waste pickers that search in the trash looking for items of value. Similarly, in Brazil, it is quite common that several thousands of scavengers dig through tons of waste to sorting items that can be reused or resold. Venezuela has a somewhat organized recycling program, but the general public does not have much participation in it. VITALIS, the biggest non-profit institution in Venezuela that promotes the concepts of sustainability and nature conservation, reports that the country produces 18,000 ton of trash daily, of which 15-20% is recycled, but only a mere one fifth of the recycled material undergoes the final treatment for proper recovery.

All recycling programs in Latin America fall in the same light of the spectrum as the ones previously described.

However, recycling practice among Latinos changes significantly when they migrate to the United States and become exposed environmental campaigns. As they remain acculturated to the US ways, Latinos’ interest in the environment increases, particularly with successive generations being born in the United States. This is most likely due to the change in perspective of cultural value about the environment. The overwhelming Latino interest and participation in the New Lawrence’s waste disposal and recycling program evidence this occurrence.

City of Lawrence Recycling Program

Lawrence recycling program consists of one recycling coordinator, who serves a population of 72,000 citizens. The shortage of staff in the city’s recycling program mainly occurs due to the lack of budget. The city of Lawrence primarily consists of immigrants with scarce economic resources. According to the US Census for the year 2000, 59.7% the city’s population is Latino/Hispanic, and their household income ($27,983) is thirty-three percent lower than the national average ($41,994). The waste management program in this city has been revolutionized with the implementation of new virtually automated systems consisting of mechanized trucks, which has helped to evoke the interest of the citizens about trash disposal and recycling practices. The city of Lawrence signed a $2.1 million dollar contract with Allied Waste Services to pick the average 32,000 tons of refuse the city produces per year, and collect the recycle material at no additional cost, as long the refuse and recycled volumes do not surpasses the aforementioned unit of weight. Under this program, each household is restricted to 65gal of trash, which is lesser in volume than what an individual currently disposes. However, Lawrencians are being urged to recycle to make up for the deficit and to help the environment also in turn. Furthermore, the city will no longer pick up commercial trash, but Allied Waste Services will collect their recycled items for free. As shown in the figure below, approximately 60% of the city has received the new 65gal carts and recycling bins, these have not been issued yet at the inner city due to risk of mechanized pick up in this high population density area.

Lawrence’s citizens, particularly the Latino population, have been highly responsive to the conversion of this automated duel stream recycling program. The city distributed 350 recycling bins, to at least 80% to Hispanic residents, in the month of November 2009 alone, and an additional 750 units have been ordered for distribution during the next month. The first round of automated thrash collection started as of November 10, 2009. I have captured a snap of this in the picture in the cover sheet of this report, which shows the newly receptacles in Andover Street on the first automated trash collection day. The response of the population has been nothing less than overwhelming to the point that an additional truck was added to the route to collect recycled materials. During the first three weeks, the city practiced 100% tolerance to commercial trash, which can amount to 60-70 tons per week, while individual adjusted to the new system. Even then, the city reduced the solid waste by 28 tons the first week, and 100 tons in each subsequent two weeks, for a total reduction of 278 ton in the first three weeks. This translates into a projected saving of $300K to the city of Lawrence, which currently produces an average of 32,000 tons of solid waste in the year and pays $57 per ton to dispose it. The recycled material collected in Lawrence is brought to transfer facility in Hudson, New Hampshire, where the items are further classified by a conveyor belt system and separated in a table of approximately 15 individuals who stand in front of chutes to push the items down.

Recycling plays an important role in the reduction of MSW. The recycling rate in the US is 32.3%, as of 2008, and the goal figure is to reach 35%. A survey indicated active participation and interest on the part of Latinos/Hispanic in recycling, particularly in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Data Collection & Analysis

Surveying Means and Methods

For the purpose of this survey, the population identified as Hispanic/Latinos are those who were born in Latin America or those individuals that were born somewhere else but had Hispanic/Latino roots through their parents or grandparents. Individuals who were born outside the United States and migrated to the country later on in their lives are considered as first generation immigrants.

This discussion is based on a survey that resorted to postings online and print materials distributed to the sample population. The online survey was disseminated through websites such as facebook.com, myspace.com, realidadhispana.com, personal contacts of researcher, database of local non-profit (FFW, Inc.) organizations etc. The printed survey was randomly distributed at Lawrence public library, post office, local community college (in both locations, Lawrence and Haverhill), public housing (Beacons Apartment) and private housing (JPI Apartments), and a local manufactory (New Balance Athletic Shoes, Inc). The survey of 120 young adults of age 14 and above began in October 2009 and was concluded in November 2009. The online version of the survey was made available in English as well as Spanish languages, and both links were distributed simultaneously. The print version of the survey was also available in both these languages, and the surveyors were screened for race, ethnicity and language preference before the survey materials were handed over to them. In certain cases, the researcher used the method of direct questions, to avoid possible refusal or disinclination to participate. The primary target population was Latino/Hispanic for the purpose of establishing the amount of recycling among first generation of immigrants versus other generations with Latino/Hispanic roots born in the United States.

The survey contained a total of fifteen questions, five of which were intended to establish recycling habits or tendency in the household as per the responder’s interpretation. The other three verified race/ethnicity, and the remaining seven inquired about personal factors, such as education and socio-economic status etc that had been associated to the affinity towards the concept of recycling in the previous studies.

The order of personal and general questions was randomly alternated to avoid rejection by prospective participants. The first three questions determined if the person was Latino/ Hispanic and whether the individual was a first generation immigrant in the United States or otherwise. The following five questions established the household’s current and past (in the case of first generation immigrants) recycling practice as well as education level. In some instances, the person answering the survey did not recycle, whereas the other family members did. The next four questions determined the individual’s place of residence, household’s income level and age group. The last two questions measured the individual’s interest to learn about recycling and/or to participate in a recycling program. The final item in the survey was a space for comments.

Survey Findings

A total of 120 responded indicated their race/ethnicity: 83% Latinos (n=100) and 17 % Non-Latinos (n=20). The sample was not expected to accurately represent the population as the sampling was biased toward nonwhite populations in the city of Lawrence and because several individuals from other geographical areas participated in the survey, 71% (n=85) respondent claimed to live in the city of Lawrence, the remaining participants were found to live in adjacent cities and nearby states. The sample was designed to establish recycling patterns among Latinos, specifically first generation of immigrants versus other generations.

  • 80% identified themselves as Latinos, of which 34% are first generation and 42% have Latino/Hispanic roots, and all have lived three or more years in the United States
  • 67% admitted that they recycle, 25% did not recycle and 8% did not know the term
  • 3% of first generation recycled in their country of origin, but failed to pinpoint which items, as specified in the survey
  • 66% lived in Lawrence, 3% in Methuen, 1.5% in Haverhill and the remaining 28% in other cities
  • Of the 25% that does not recycle, 71% were interested in learning about it and/or starting to participate in a recycling program
  • 61% of participants were interested in a program to exchange used items among the members of their community
  • 16 % of participants were not interested and 22% were undecided. From talking to people in house to house surveying, it appeared likely that the question was not clear to some, and, as a result, they could not make a decision.
  • People wanted to recycle, but did not know from where to get relevant information


Provided that recycling plays a pivotal role in preserving the environment and Hispanic are the second largest growing group in the United States, engaging the Latino population in recycling efforts will result in dual benefits of having cleaner inner cities, even in the areas where the poor dwell, conserving natural resources, and ultimately contributing to save the environment. The US EPA recognizes this, which reflects in the effort of launching a Spanish recycling website to reach out to the Hispanic communities (). The Census Bureau projects that the nonwhite population is expected to increase by more than 100 million by the year 2050. Most of the growth is expected to be in Hispanics (from 11 to 24%). Provided that Latinos/Hispanic do embrace the idea of recycling once they are exposed to the concept and understand it, further education efforts should be made to engage this group in this important effort.


  • Organized educational effort on environmental issues should be continued to be refined and practice to engage more Latinos in recycling efforts.
  • Education programs should target both children and adults.
  • Disseminating education materials to students, such as activity pamphlets appropriate for their education level creates consciousness among the younger population. Distributing informative material on the significance of environmental safety will also go a long way in creating awareness.
  • The city of Lawrence should form a collaborative partnership among the current local recycling non-profit organizations, such as Lawrence Brown Works, and Lawrence Environmental Action Group, to agree on community outreach strategies to outweigh the lack of staff to oversee the program. Additionally, recycling information should be easily accessible and continuously updated in the city’s website. Given that the city lacks the staff and funds supervise recycling education effort, a committee of volunteers should be formed through recruiting professionals and college students, former and current citizens of Lawrence, to volunteer their time to structure the recycling program, evaluating it and making necessary modifications.
  • Develop compact recycling containers, with a compactor attached. Space is an issue for low-income family that most likely live in small spaces, and therefore do not have a place to accommodate big bins.

Work Cited

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Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2009. Web.

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Greenberg, Michael R. “Concern about Environmental Pollution: How Much Difference Do Race and Ethnicity Make? A New Jersey Case Study”. Environmental Health Perspectives 113.4 (2005): 369-374. GreenFILE. Web.

Hutchinson, Alex. “Is Recycling Worth it?” Popular Mechanics 185.12 (2008): 68-76. Academic Search Premier Web.

Johnson, Cassandra Y, et al. “Ethic Variation in Environmental Belief and Behavior: An Examination of the New Ecological Paradigm in a Social Psychological Context.” Environment & Behavior 36.2 (2004): 157-186. GreenFILE. Web.

McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002. Print.

Modern Landfills: A Far Cry from the Past. Washington: National Solid Wastes Management Association, 2008. Print.

Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2005 Facts and Figures. EPA, 2006. Print.

National Solid Wastes Management Association. Modern Landfills: A Far Cry from the Past. Washington, 2008. Print.

“On your Mark, Set… Recycle.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education 26.17 (2009): 5-5. Print.

Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. New York: The New Press, 2005. Print.

Saphores, Jean-Daniel M, and Hilary Nixon. “Information and the decision to recycle: results from a survey of US households.” Environmental Planning & Management 52.2 (2009): 257-277. GreenFILE. Web.

Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Print.

The Official Website of VITALIS. 2009. Web.

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Young, Mitchell, ed. Garbage and Recycling. New York: Greenhaven Press, 2007. Print.

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