All raw materials and all energy are provided by our environment. Unfortunately, most of the provided raw materials and energy are not useable as they appear in nature (e.g. ores, wind power, etc.) and are spread globally in e.g. deposits. By using energy and resources we have to collect, clean, concentrate, and transform these resources to generate primary raw materials that are useable for people and industry. In physical terms, this means that we have to lower the entropy (high entropy = high “disorder” or low “usability” of a material) of the system "environment" by using energy (a system where all substances are distributed evenly is in the state of equilibrium with the highest possible entropy). This is done in industries like power plants, steel and aluminum mills or in the petrochemical industry.
With the production, the use and disposal of any good the raw materials the goods are made of or any transformation products (e.g. any emissions) are distributed in our environment (the system) again, which means that the entropy of the system goes up again.
The assignment of any recycling effort is to re-concentrate the raw materials - produce a secondary raw material - and re-decreases the entropy of the system by using energy again. As a matter of fact, the demand on energy and resources is usually lower to produce a good from recycled material as a pure raw material is already available (e.g., metal not ore) and there is no need to start from the very beginning (e.g., dig for ore to refine the metals cars, beverage cans are made from). Recycling assures that a part of the initially used raw materials and energy are utilizable again for our industries to produce new goods for lower costs and with a lower environmental impact. Primary raw materials should only be used to balance the losses during the recycling process, to increase the quality of the secondary raw materials, and to fill up the gap between available secondary raw materials and current demand.
As the substances - from emissions especially - could be distributed in very low local concentrations evenly in the environment the demand on energy and resources to recover the valuable raw materials grows theoretically exponentially. Corollary, recycling and raw material recovery will never be complete.
Video: Recycling Propaganda
Webpage: New York City's Residential Recycling Programm (NRDC)