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Recycling: What Happens to it After it Leaves My House?

Man! That feels good.

You rinsed out that jar, put the lid back on, and put it in the recycle bin.

It joined the papers from earlier, the glass bottles from last night, and the aluminum cans you carried all the way back from your trip to the park.

It will become something new soon.

Or will it?

What really happens to your recycling when it leaves your house?

Single-Stream vs. Multi-Stream Recycling

There two major ways that recycling is collected, single stream and multi-stream.

Single stream is what most of us have now.

Everything, cardboard, glass, aluminum, plastic, everything, all goes into one bin and is sorted at the recycling center.

The advantage of single stream recycling is that consumers are more likely to participate since it’s a lot easier.

The disadvantage is that it puts a lot of burden on the recycling centers.

Multi-stream recycling requires that different materials are separated.

Plastic, metal, glass, and paper each have their own bins.

This is much easier for the recycling center, but many people simply can’t be bothered to sort it all.

With multiple bins, some people will just throw everything in the trash.

There is some discussion of going back to multi-stream recycling to lower costs at the recycling centers, but most waste management companies and municipalities know that it will increase waste at the landfill.

What Can Be Recycled?

What you can and can’t recycle is up to your waste company or your local municipality.

For example, in central Ohio, where I live, SWACO lists what you should put in the recycle bin:

  • Paper and cardboard
  • Plastic bottle, jugs, and tubs (with the labels on)
  • Glass bottles and jars (all colors)
  • Metal cans (remove the aerosol tips)
  • Cartons (remove lids and straws)

This is typical.

They remind you to rinse out food and don’t add other items, like plastic bags as they can clog the recycling processing machines.

What Can’t Be Recycled?

What can’t be recycled using your single-stream recycling bin is a little depressing, though.

  • Plastic bags – These can be taken to many stores to recycle, even Walmart.
  • Hose, wires, and chains – They tangle in the machines.
  • Plastic and foam containers and Styrofoam – Food grease makes them unrecyclable.
  • Light bulbs – There are some places that take CFL bulbs.
  • Coffee and drinks cups – How many billions of those do we use every day?
  • Any other plastics items that’s not a jug, bottle, or tub.
  • Medical waste
  • Batteries
  • Any containers used to store hazardous waste – Which can include drain cleaner bottles and other materials you may not have thought of as hazardous waste

That’s a lot of stuff that can only be used once and then it ends up in a landfill.

What is the Recycling Process?

The recycling process is straightforward, but there are a few detours.

After the truck comes to pick up your recycling, it takes everything to a recycling center where it’s all sorted.

Ever wonder how much of the process is automated and how much requires people to do the work?

How do they separate different types of plastic?

What does all that recycling look like when it’s all processed and ready to be sold?

The Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD) has created a great video that takes you behind-the-scenes.

You get to see how everything is processed and even get a sense of why certain items, like plastic shopping bags, can’t go into your recycling bin.

Watch this very informative 6 minute video here:

How Recycling Works: Behind the Scenes at the MRF

The goal is to sort the recycling well so that the result is more valuable.

Contaminants and mixed recycling make the materials less valuable when it’s time to try to sell the bales.

It starts with hand-sorting and ends with hand sorting.

Things like steel, iron, and other ferrous metals can be pulled off by an electromagnet and some paper can be removed by screens, but a lot of it has to be pulled off by workers who are sorting on a fast-moving conveyor belt.

In fact, until recently, we were able to sell a lot of our recycling to China.

Since about 25% of US recycling is contaminated, with food residues, mixed materials, or unrecyclable materials, it’s a lot of work to make it ready for recycling and reuse.

China decided they wanted that down to 0.3% contaminated materials.

That means we can’t sell our materials to China any more.

Today, the value of our baled materials has dropped since the US has an abundance of supply compared to the demand for recyclable bales of materials.

Recycling Plastic

I’ve got a confession to make;

I have an issue with disposable thinking.

I just don’t like it.

At Bottiful Home, I sell pump bottles made from PET plastic designed to be reused for years, but we have too much acceptance of disposing of used items these days.

I’m not saying we should find a way to reuse wrapping paper or scrub our used aluminum foil so our kids can later use it for projects.

You won’t find me going to these extremes.

But what I’m suggesting is to always think first, “Is this a throwaway item, or can it be easily and sanitarily turned into something else that I (or someone else) will actually use?”

For example, what about all the glass candle jars we throw into the recycle bin each year?

Then we go out and buy glass storage containers for our pantries.

Seems to me, we could clean the candle jars out (fully sanitize them) and use them for food storage, bathroom storage, planters or for corralling small items around the house.

And what about gifts?

A really nice plastic container or glass candle jar can be easily turned into a gift container at Christmas or birthdays.

Did you know that, according to National Geographic, more than half of the plastic ever made has been manufactured in the last 15 years?

Here’s the real problem: Only 9% of the plastic we use is recycled.

I’m not going to go into a big lecture on why that is.

There are lots of articles out there placing the blame on plastic itself and using it at all.

But you won’t hear that argument from me.

I think we just need to be more conscious of what plastic is really good for and when it would be better substituted by something else.

What Can We Do?

The first thing we can do is buy the right plastics. Here’s some guidance from the good folks at PBS.

Recycling Code #1 – PET (PETE)

#1 plastic is PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) is the type of plastic that’s used for soda bottles, juice bottles, and more.

It’s clear, light, and strong.

PET also popular for containing salad dressings, mayonnaise, and peanut butter.

It’s easy to recycle almost everywhere.

Once recycled it tends to retain its strength better than other plastics.

Simple rinse out any residue and put in your recycle bin.

Also, look for recycling bins at festivals and more.

This is the type of plastic we use for our pump bottles.

They last a long time and when you’re done with them, they’re easy to recycle.

PET plastic can be recycled into carpet fibers, fiberfill for furnishings, pallet strapping, more bottles, clamshell containers and more.

It’s the most easily recyclable and reusable plastic material available.

Check out this 1.5 minute video from National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) showing how PET is separated from other types of plastic in a plastic bale to be sent on to create new products!

As great as PET is for lots of household products, it’s not good in squeezing applications.

It tends to dent and crease when squeezed.

Enter HDPE plastic…

Recycling Code #2 – HDPE

High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is opaque and used for milk jugs and the like.

It’s also squeezable.

This makes it ideal for condiment bottles, shampoo bottles, lotions, and more where you’ll need to squeeze the bottle to get the contents out.

It’s recycled at extremely high levels and because it’s so common, it’s valuable to the recycling companies.

Some common uses for recycled HDPE are plumbing pipes, ropes, lumber and some toys.

Unlike PET plastic, which is clear and glass-like, but can be colored, HDPE is naturally opaque.

Both PET and HDPE have good chemical resistance and UV protective qualities.

PET and HDPE plastic are the most recycled plastics in that they are collected at high rates all over the country and both are easily converted into new uses.

What About All The Other Recycling Codes?

Recycling Code #3 – PVC

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is very tough and is often used in household water pipes, kids’ toys, plastic trays and some furniture.

Its chemical compound contains a high level of chlorine and it requires a lot of hazardous additives to manufacture.

There are some specialty programs across the country that recycle PVC, but these aren’t the types of products that can just be thrown into your household recycle bin.

The goods news about PVC in water pipes and home structures is that you’re not removing them and throwing them away.

This plastic has a typical life span of 30-50 years.

But PVC in plastic toys is a whole different story.

This type of plastic usually ends up in landfills when no longer in use, and the thing about long-lasting plastic in landfills is that it doesn’t decompose out in nature any faster.

Check out this article from Bioenergy Consult all about PVC, how it’s used and what it can be recycled into.

Recycling Code #4 – LDPE

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is one of the simplest structures of plastic to manufacture, making it perfect for plastic bags, baggies, plastic film, molded plastic parts and more.

And keeping your bread fresh, your sandwiches in tact and your groceries easily transportable are necessities of life.

But, even though LDPE is technically recyclable, it usually isn’t.

When added to recycling waste, it jams up the machines.

You can keep these bags out of landfills by either reusing them over and over again or taking advantage of your grocery store’s bag take-back program.

Kroger (a national grocery store chain) has a plastic bag and single-use plastic recycling program.

They take your bags, single-use plastics and packaging like cereal box liners, paper towel plastic wrap, etc and add it to their plastics and send it to be recycled into composite decking.

How cool is that?

Check out that article to see which plastic bags and items you can drop off with them and what size your recyclable item needs to be.

Recycling Code #5 – PP

Polypropylene (PP) is used for yogurt containers and shampoo bottles.

This is another plastic that isn’t recycled frequently enough.

That’s mostly because this type of plastic tends to retain the odor of the original product it contained, even after processing.

But thanks to a scientist at Proctor & Gamble, he thinks he may have solved that problem, making it more and more available to recycle PP.

I know that my recycling program in my area has just announced that it can now accept tubs in the recycle bins, meaning I can place yogurt, margarine and butter containers and other tubs into the recycle bin.

Some of these tubs are PP (recycle code 5) and will see new life again as clothing fibers, industrial fibers, food containers, dishware and more.

If your recycling program doesn’t yet accept PP plastics, it will still end up in the landfills, but it appears progress is being made to recycle it as much as possible.

Recycling Code #6 – Polystyrene

Polystyrene is a hard solid plastic used in making appliances, electronics, automobile parts, gardening pots, plastic cutlery, DVD cases, and more.

Styrofoam is also a brand name polystyrene plastic.

Styrofoam is comprised of petroleum, making it technically recyclable.

But due to the fact that it’s so lightweight and bulky, the cost of transportation to recycling facilities outweighs the positive environmental impact of recycling the materials.

So it usually ends up in the landfill.

But what about polystyrene in the form of hard plastic, can it be recycled?

It can.

But usually not locally.

And recycled polystyrene can’t be used for products that come in contact with food.

So the transportation and logistics costs often outweigh the environmental benefit of recycling once again.

Read this very thorough article by How Stuff Works on How Does Polystyrene Recycling Work to get a better sense of why it’s just not as practical to recycle this kind of plastic.

Recycling Code #7 – All Other Plastics

This category of plastics not only encompasses any plastic that cannot clearly be identified into categories 1 through 6, but also plastics that are some combination of the other 6 types of plastic are also in this category.

These plastic items are almost never recycled.

That’s because the average consumer doesn’t have the skills or tools to distinguish types of plastic from one another and also because the different types of plastic would have to be clearly separated from one another before entering the recycling stream in order to get recycled.

And remember, number 7 also means any other kind of plastic than the ones with numbers 1 through 6.

So you really don’t know what it is.

Getting Away From a Disposable Life

The key to reducing our plastic waste is to use less of it.

If we do buy plastic, we should look for plastics that are easily recyclable and that we can use and reuse many times.

At Bottiful Home, we create bottles that will last for years.

The goal is to provide you with items that aren’t disposable, yet safe enough to be dropped and not hurt anyone.

They last safely for years.

Whenever possible, purchase items with future use in mind.

Will you be refilling it over and over?

Will you be turning that packaging into decor once you’ve emptied it?

Waste is waste, no matter what the material is.

Plastic isn’t inherently evil, but we don’t recycle enough of it.

As noted in this article, that’s more about the availability of technology needed to recycle and the transportation costs of recycling compared to the value of the end product and demand in the marketplace.

It’s nice to think your waste can turn into something cool in its next life, but if it never makes it there because it’s just not financially feasible, then we have more problems to solve and need to think about waste in a different way.

Let’s work together to make the world cleaner by purchasing more items that have many years of uses in them and fewer items we intend to throw away after one use, one year, one minute.

Here’s to taking care of our resources while making progress in science, technology and humanitarianism.

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