What is recycling, where does it go, and how to recycle? In this post, there are references to the circle of life, links to recycling resources, and an overview to make you a recycling boss in just 10 minutes.
My mom asked me a while back where our recycling goes and it got me thinking, this is actually important stuff! We toss our used goods thinking we’ll never see them again but that’s not true! So I found out what happens and how to recycle right.
What Is Recycling?
You know a general idea, but what’s the denotation (dictionary definition) of recycling? Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it’s “to pass again through a series of changes or treatments”. More specifically, it’s a reprocessing of waste disposal for use in new products. This is also considered external recycling as opposed to internal.
You can think of it as the circle of life in The Lion King. Mufasa tells Simba their bodies die and become the grass, the antelope eat the grass, and lions eat the antelope. Everything is connected!
Where Does Recycling Go?
Good question. This is a part of recycling people don’t usually know. Once you set your paper, glass, and plastic into their bins by the curbside or in city drop-off locations the garbage person takes it away. Where it goes varies by region but the process is similar.
Let’s take Indianapolis, for example. The news site, IndyStar, explains their process.
- The garbage person takes your trash to a sorting facility.
- From there, your leftovers get placed onto a thick conveyer belt in the pre-sort area. Workers standing beside it pick through the items that shouldn’t be there.
- The belt carries your old and used trash into a large separating machine that sifts through everything.
- After the machine sorts each item, it directs it into its appropriate compartment by the material.
- Once in the correct section, a truck takes it to a mill where it gets melted down and eventually processed for reuse as a new object.
The waste management process seems simple in a list of five steps, but it can be far from it. If a plastic bag gets caught in the sifting machine, the workers have to shut it all down and restart it once the bag is out which takes time and costs money. This is common.
What Are the Benefits?
Lucky for the environment, when we recycle correctly, there are some major benefits! This is most likely the reason why waste management has grown in relation to larger issues such as climate change. Britannica and the U.S. Department of Health mention a few of the wonderful effects of recycling, in that it:
- helps reduce the amount of solid waste disposal in landfills,
- reduces air pollution,
- reduction of water pollution,
- reduces land pollution,
- reduces the use of natural resources by reusing,
- uses less energy,
- economically creates more jobs.
Recycling the right way is more crucial than people might think. At least with all this knowledge, you can be mindful of the recycling process and what happens behind the scenes.
How to Recycle
Look at you, gaining these benefits. If you’re still with me, awesome! While understanding the basics of recycling is important, so is knowing how to recycle.
This section mostly talks about recycling plastic but the dos and don’ts of glass and paper are included!
With waste-management, you most likely have three bins at your house: paper, glass, and plastic with each bin distributed by color. For example, in New Zealand, a bin for paper is normally grey, whereas it’s Australian neighbor has blue paper bins. While I would love to give you a color code for each place in the world, I’m going to talk about the general idea of what each bin includes and how to recycle it properly.
The recycling symbols you find on plastic products are also referred to as plastic grades, and there are seven of them. Each one has a number (1-7) inside of the arrows and they have different uses. I’m gathering this information from Caroline Jones’s book How To Go Plastic Free, where she talks about each plastic grade and how well they can be recycled and reused.
1: this is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) material. Recycling plastic such as this is easier than most since this material makes up everyday drinking bottles, and can be made back into drinking bottles or something like bags and carpets.
2: high-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a tougher material, including products like milk jugs and fruit juice. HDPE can be recycled into fencing, garden furniture, and pipes.
3: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a little trickier because its materials are plastic toys and lawn chairs. It’s rarely recycled.
4: this grade is low-density polyethylene (LDPE) such as plastic bags and squeezable bottles, and only really good for reuse in lumber.
5: polypropylene (PP) is often used for containers like yogurt cups and butter tubs. Recycling plastic like PP is limited to reuse in ice scrapers, rakes, and battery cables, but still good recyclable plastic.
6: polystyrene (PS) is used in food boxes and packaging, but one of the most difficult to recycle.
7: the “other” category lies here. 7-grade recycling plastic is a mix of plastics that don’t fit into the other sections.
So when I say it’s important to recycle properly, this should be your biggest takeaway. Some products are tougher to recycle than others, so keep in mind the number on the plastic grade and aim for 1, 2, 5, and 7.
Dos and Don’ts
- don’t recycle plastic bags – they get caught in the sorting machines.
- consider donating items like lawn chairs (grade 3, that’s a no-go) instead of recycling.
- don’t bag your recyclable plastic, keep it loose in the bin.
I’m going to go straight into the recycling glass dos and don’ts because we all know what glass is, right? Examples are wine bottles, drinkware (usually), and flower vases. A nerdy fun fact of the day is that glass is mostly comprised of sand, so a lot of products that are recycled from glass are made into items like tiles for your home!
Dos and Don’ts
- glass is fragile (sorry about the vase mom, hopefully you skip this part) and has little use for reuse once it’s broken, so be extra careful when putting it into the recycling glass bin.
- for mirrors and windows, you’ll have to find a construction and demolition recycler to process the hefty material.
- windshields are recyclable glass.
Although recycling glass is one of the easiest materials, we still have to follow protocol.
This includes newspapers, brochures, magazines, calendars, cards, envelopes, and cardboard. Basically, anything with similar material as these can go into the recycling paper bin.
Dos and Don’ts
- oils from food leftover on cardboard cannot be recycled. According to cnet.com, cut out the greaseless spots and recycle those.
- don’t let cardboard or paper get wet – it messes up the processing system.
- break down boxes so they are flat like a pancake.
- the recycling paper list does not include paper towels.
Recycling paper can be easy if done right along with the other two materials.
The best thing you can do is check with your local provider because there is no way to explain everyone’s process of recycling plastic, glass, paper, and other materials. Nevertheless, the more knowledge you have on everyday topics, the more power you have to make a change! One small step makes an impact.
Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance…we need to understand that balance.”