What happens to the stuff you recycle?


The average American produces roughly 4.4 pounds of trash every day, according to the EPA. The good news is that you’re recycling or composting a pound and a half — about 34 percent — of the waste products you generate.

But what happens to the 87 millions of tons of materials we recycle in the U.S. every year? Where do those plastic milk jugs go after they leave your curb? What about the empty beer cans you drop off at the recycling center?

Most recycled materials end up right back in your home through a complex (but surprisingly efficient) recycling process. To see what that recycling process looks like, check out this video from SciShow:

What happens to recycled paper?

Paper use in the U.S. has more than doubled over the past 20 years. The average American consumes 500 pounds of paper products per year — the same level of consumption as six people in Asia and more than 30 people in Africa.

Offices continue to be a major source of paper consumption. (So much for the paperless workplace.) But we also burn through tons of paper products in our homes. Everything from newspapers to cardboard boxes to telephone books passes through our lives and eventually lands in our recycling bins.

What happens next varies by the kind of paper you’re recycling. Each type of paper in your home or office is recycled into a unique set of new products:

  • Newspapers – Newsprint is the universal donor of the recycling world. It can be manufactured into things like paperboard, building insulation, paper plates, sheetrock, kitty litter, counter tops and of course, more newspapers.
  • Paper boxes and cardboard – Most paper and cardboard boxes are used to make more paper and cardboard boxes. But paperboard can also be used in the production of roofing materials.
  • Printer paper – Printer and notebook paper are typically used to create other “white” paper products like tissues, toilet paper and napkins as well as more printer and notebook paper.
  • Magazines – Magazine paper is tricky. But with the right recycling process, it can be used to make newsprint and paperboard products.

What happens to recycled plastic bottles?

The recycling process for plastics is complicated by the fact that there are several different types of plastics. For example, plastic milk jugs are made from a different material than plastic water bottles. Each type of plastic requires a different recycling process.

Plastic bottle recycling is a big deal. In the U.S., we empty 50 billion plastic water bottles a year. Fortunately, recycling makes it possible for those water bottles and other plastic products to have a second life.

  • Plastic beverage containers – Soda and water bottles are often recycled into fabrics. Some of the product categories where your empty Coke or water bottles might reappear include water-resistant outerwear, bags and backpacks, and carpeting.
  • Other plastic containers – Heavier plastic containers like detergent bottles or gallon jugs find their way into products made from dense plastics, like buckets, outdoor seating, playground equipment and even Frisbees.

What happens to recycled aluminum cans and glass bottles?

Cans and glass bottles are some of the most commonly recycled items in the home. States with container deposit legislation (like New York) have helped increase the recycling rate for aluminum cans to 67%. That’s almost double the recycling rate for all products in the U.S, according to the Aluminum Association.

The recycling rate for glass bottles is less impressive. In 2013, Americans recycled 41.3% of beer and soda bottles, and 34.5% of wine and liquor bottles. But states with container deposit laws boast a 63% recycling rate, compared to just 23% for states without legislation, according to data from the Glass Packaging Institute.

The takeaway: Container deposit laws work and that’s a good thing because aluminum cans and glass bottles are 100% recyclable. Here are some of the products recycled cans and bottles end up in.

  • Aluminum cans – The recycling process for aluminum doesn’t degrade the quality of the material, so aluminum cans are in an infinite recycling loop. They are usually manufactured into new aluminum cans. Recycling a single aluminum can saves enough energy to listen to a complete album on an iPod and recycled aluminum can reappear on a store shelf in as little as two months.
  • Glass bottles – Recycled glass bottles have to be separated by color so manufactures can comply with industry color standards when they manufacture new bottles. In addition to new bottles, the glass bottles you recycle at home are used to make fiberglass for insulation and other glass products. The container and fiberglass industries purchase more than 3 million tons of recycled glass each year.

What happens to recycled tin cans?

The term “tin can” is misleading. Containers for soup and other canned goods are actually steel cans with a thin layer of tin. These materials are separated during the recycling process and used to manufacture a variety of products.

Interesting fact: Steelmaking is one of the most recycling-friendly processes on the plant. In North America, steel products always contain recycled steel, according to the Steel Recycling Institute. So, when you buy something with steel in it, you’re automatically buying a recycled product.

  • Tin cans – The steel and tin in “tin cans” are repurposed for a range of products, including cars, construction materials, appliances and new tin cans.

Recycling is more than a good idea. For some people, it’s a spiritual discipline

There are encouraging signs that Americans have started to take the recycling message to heart. But with 66% of the products we consume left non-recycled, there’s definitely room for improvement.

Regular recycling habits are a good start. But for many of us, recycling is about more than remembering to drop empty egg cartons in the recycling bin. It’s a spiritual discipline.

Ultimately, we’re all guests on this planet. By embracing recycling and other environmentally friendly practices as a spiritual practice, we can preserve the environment for future generations, while living our own lives in a more meaningful and intentional way.

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