Most of us do not think much about recycling after we sort bottles and jars, crush cartons and break down boxes. Recycling makes us feel good, but few of us know what actually happens to a plastic bottle after we drop it into a bin.
Recycling can be a fairly long process. It’s not like you put it in your bin and suddenly it’s a new thing. Debra Winter’s December, 2015, article in The Atlantic describes in detail how recycled plastic bottles enter a system where the plastic is sold, shipped, melted, resold, and shipped again—sometimes zigzagging the globe before becoming a carpet, clothing, or repeating life as a bottle.
After the recycling is picked up by a waste management company, it is sent to a facility for sorting and recovery of items that can be resold into the post-consumer market. The rest, which is about half, is discarded and sent to the landfills. This is often the result of placing non-recyclable materials into recycling bins, but can include recyclable plastic items that haven’t been cleaned properly. In the United States, there are few facilities that recycle used plastic bottles; so bottles are likely to end up in Riverside, California, at CarbonLite Industries. Opened in 2012, CarbonLite is one of the country’s largest facilities, recycling more than 2 billion bottles a year.
Typically, the recycling process begins with separating the plastic from trash and debris by pre-washing. Then bottles are sent through laser sorting machines to separate clear plastic and green plastic. Bottles are washed in a soapy formula heated just enough to remove labels and caps, then ground into cornflake-sized pieces, washed again and dried, and heated again to eliminate any contaminants. These recycled plastic bottle flakes (rPET) will be shipped to manufacturers in the U.S., China, and beyond, and used to make new products.
The plastic flakes for new bottles, however, must be sterilized and tested to meet food-grade standards. Plastic flakes are melted, extruded as ribbons of liquid plastic, and shaped into smooth rice-grain-sized pieces. These tiny pellets will be sold to a manufacturer as raw materials for take-away food containers and plastic bottles.
There are two types of plastic beverage containers — thinner PET bottles and thicker HDPE bottles. Both can be turned into all kinds of new plastic products.
Many of the large beverage producers are now producing PET bottles, (often used for soda and water), with increasing amounts of recycled PET – even up to 100 percent recycled content. PET bottles can be recycled into new containers for beverages, salad dressing and household cleaning products. This plastic can also become the fabric in your clothes, the fiberfill in your coat, and the upholstery and carpeting around your house. In fact, recycling just five two-litre bottles can produce enough polyester for a square yard of carpet, according to Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association’s website.
Bottles and containers used for milk, shampoo, laundry detergent and household cleaners are made from thicker HDPE bottles. They are lightweight and tough but a different type of plastic than beverage bottles. They can be recycled to make sturdier products like new bottles and containers, playground equipment, plastic lumber, and patio furniture. Roadside curbs, benches and truck cargo liners are made from recycled thicker plastic HDPE bottles. This type of plastic is also used to make recycling bins.
Plastic Bags and Wraps
We use plastic bags to carry home groceries, protect produce, keep food fresh, contain wet swim suits, and protect dry cleaning. There are thousands of grocery and retail stores that collect these bags for recycling, including most retail chains like Target, Walmart, Lowes, Safeway stores and more. Lots of the plastic wrap that protects the things we buy, (including bubble wrap), can be recycled.
Plastic bags and wraps can be made into plastic lumber for park benches, backyard decks, fences, or recycled into new plastic bags and recycled again. At abagslife.com, you can learn about recycling plastic bags and search for locations to recycle them in your community.
Plastic is a stubborn substance, which resists decomposition. The life span is presumed to be at least 500 years, so it is likely that every plastic bottle you have ever used still exists on this planet, in some form or another. Plastic bottles are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Recycling one ton of plastic bottles saves 3.8 barrels of oil. It also saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space. Each year, the economic and environmental costs of running a landfill increase.
However, there are many innovative craftsmen helping reduce landfill needs by creating clever new uses for that old plastic, such as lamps, beads, jewelry stands, napkin rings, tote bags, wallets, rugs, wall art, and so many more possibilities. Recycle Nation’s website has some great examples of recycling plastic beyond turning it into more milk jugs, like this necklace made from a water bottle or these cufflinks made from vinyl records.
And our Control-n-Roll products are another great way to reduce landfill need and lower energy costs necessary for manufacturing by reducing paper waste.
This toy truck is made out of recycled plastic milk jugs by Green Toys. Packaging is 100 percent recycled (and recyclable)—and doesn’t have any of those twist ties that make kids’ toys so difficult to open.