Recycling is very often used as a loophole to making waste. You throw your plastic water bottle in a bin and poof, the bottle was never used- it’s getting reused so that’s good for the environment… right? Well, yes. But there are consequences to recycling as well.
This article is about the process, the requirements, and resources needed to recycle. It may seem like a lot but this article is not a way to discourage you from recycling. If you are making waste that is recyclable, it is much better to recycle it than to toss it in the landfill. Recycling is an incredible process and if you are not currently recycling, starting to recycle can make a huge impact.
Now on to the good stuff… here is the inside scoop on recycling:
How Each Material is Recycled:
The 5 recyclable goods are Aluminum, Steel, Glass, Plastic, and Paper. When they are sent to the Material Recovery Facility (MRF), they are then sorted into their own categories and recycled accordingly.
Glass is relatively easy to recycle. The glass must be hand sorted into bins according to color. The color in the glass is a different chemical added to make it this color. For example, brown glass bottles have iron or sulfur added to the mix to change the color of it. These chemicals cannot be mixed nor removed once they have been added. The separated glass is crushed and melted into new glass bottles, jars, and windows.
Aluminum and steel are recycled very similarly. They are separated from each other by a giant magnet. When carried up the conveyor belt, the steel will stick to a magnet above, whereas aluminum is not magnetic. The metals are placed in two separate piles to be shredded, heavily washed, and melted. The melted metal is then turned into sheets and distributed. This process requires a lot of water and energy to reuse these elements.
Paper and cardboard are recycled into 3 bins as well- newspaper, paper, and corrugated cardboard. The three piles are compacted and bailed separately and placed into a very hot water bath. The paper turns into a mucky substance in this water bath that is called “pulp”. This pulp is then put through screens and de-inkers to turn the paper into its original state. The leftover pulp is then dried in an extreme drier and turned into paper. This process requires an incredible amount of water and energy to complete.
Lastly, the real kicker, plastic. Plastic is separated into 7 categories depending upon the combination of oil and gas that make up the plastic. These plastics are then assigned a Recycling Number from 1-7. The 7 types of plastic are hand separated into bins and recycled accordingly.
Now, although you may throw plastic into the recycling bin, this does not mean it will be recycled. Each plant sorts through the plastic and decides what they will recycle. For example, Recycling Number 5 is Polystyrene, better known as styrofoam. Styrofoam could be recycled but rarely is because of the small amount of yield the plant receives from truckloads of airy styrofoam. Heavy-duty plastic items such as plumbing pipes are labeling with a Recycling Number 3. Although these are safe, they take a long process to recycle because of their durable nature. They have to be ground into sand-sized particles and then melted accordingly. This takes a lot of energy to complete, so they are often not recycled.
As a rule of thumb, avoiding all plastic is best, but it is inevitable. If you have a choice, Recycling Numbers 2,4, and 5 are the safest and best to use. Recycling Number 1 is easily recyclable but may contain toxins. These are common items such as soda bottles and food containers.
Once the plastic is separated, it is shredded and melted down into other sheets of plastic.
What Recycling Requires:
Recycling requires a lot of water, energy, labor, and money in order to complete the entire process. Not to mention, how incredible the pollution is from operating the recycling plants. In some states, recycling plants create more air pollution than any other industrial plant in their state. This is a major downfall in the recycling process.
Another downfall is the expense of recycling. From labor to resources to energy, the operation costs add up. For example, plastic shopping bags are recyclable. However, it is so expensive to recycle them that it is rarely done. To recycle 2,000 plastic bags costs $4,000 USD (3,263 Euros). The plant can only sell that amount of yielded plastic back for $32USD (26 Euros). This margin of loss is too large for many plants to consider recycling them. Try putting them in drop boxes at local stores for the best means of recycling.
Areas That Don’t Recycle:
Although, this is becoming rare, there some counties or cities that do not recycle. This comes down to many reasons but one could be a lack of resources. As I have stated above, this process does require a lot of resources to complete and some more rural areas may not have the luxury of a recycling system nearby.
In the summers, I work at a resort in the very rural Northern Wisconsin. It is extremely costly for a company or a residency to have recycling picked up. There is not a facility nearby so the recycling would need to be transported over a hundred miles away to be recycled. It is so expensive that many people do not even think about recycling. Although it is sad (and gives me a little mini heart attack when I see full bags of plastic bottles in the dumpster) it is one area that has not adapted to these principles yet. I do what can to take in aluminum cans and some plastic bottles but that’s about all that can be done
What Can You Do:
If you are looking to be more package free, try to carry a refillable water bottle or coffee mug, refuse single-use plastics (straws, plastic cups, plastic forks, etc) or buy food in bulk bags. There are many options to minimize the packaging you use.
If you are trying to start recycling, start by getting acquainted with the numbering system on your plastic containers. As stated above, some plastic is recyclable and some is not. Know what plastics your Waste Disposal Factory takes. Once you know this, you will make the sorting process much easier on the people collecting it. You will also realize how much plastic you are using that may not be recyclable. There are always alternatives to these plastic items.
Here is an article for the 21 Easiest Package Free Alternatives to implement- check it out!
The recycling process may not be the most efficient but it is quite incredible what it can do when put together. We can make a shaped bottle, can, box into a brand new one for reuse. It is a great way to reduce your impact in the landfill. Do not take this post as an excuse to avoid recycling. But, take it as an excuse to start buying less packaged items! It may be grueling, expensive, and resource dependent but if you buy plastic it is still better to recycle it than to throw it away. When recyclable items get wet with rainwater in a landfill, they leach extremely toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater. It is still better to recycle than to throw items that could be recycled into a landfill. Take this knowledge and motivate ourselves and others to change our actions.
My Visit to a Recycling Center:
I visited a recycling center and took photos of their process to share. They were more of a packaging center and then they transported all of the compacted materials to the Material Recovery Facility to be melted and recycled. I found this process to be an extremely fascinating experience and I would recommend you all to go check out a factory if you have one close by! It is extremely eye-opening.
Below are photos of my visited. I witnessed a lot of moving wrapped items with a forklift, sweeping up messes and unclogging the few machines they had. There were about 6 employees working at the time of my visit at this objectively small recycling center. Although there are pros and cons to automated factories, I have reason to believe it would be a much more efficient process. However, I am very grateful for the current process we have and the people that do this work every day! It makes a huge impact.
Take this information and use what you wish, but take it as motivation to either start a more package-free lifestyle or to hone in on your recycling skills. Either way, take it as motivation to want to make a change. Recycling – a concept thought to be simple and eco-friendly – still has implications for the environment. But, you can still make a huge difference it. Small acts when added together will make a larger difference!
Enjoy the photos below and please feel free to comment or email me questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would absolutely be happy to answer any questions you may have!