Chances are, you’re pretty virtuous about throwing those plastic containers in your recycling bin, and then you don’t give them much thought beyond that. But behind the scenes, your plastic’s life is far from over, and far from boring.
Plastics go through an involved recycling process, eventually finding new life in a wide range of products, from carpeting to patio furniture to fleece sweatshirts. The entirety of the plastics recycling process is pretty interesting — there aren’t many other processes that focus on transforming one thing into something else completely different — but here 5 of my favorite facts about plastics recycling*:
1. You may not have to remove those bottle caps anymore. Recyclers are working hard to make sure that recycling is as easy as possible for consumers, so that more people get on the bandwagon. And one way they’ve done so is by improving their equipment and technology in some areas, so that residents don’t have to separate recyclables by type. In particular, some new equipment can process bottles, caps and all, so you don’t need to go through the hassle of removing the cap and throwing it in the trash.
2. Float, or sink? You can tell a type of plastic by what it does in water. Not all plastics are made the same; even if you’re able to recycle them together, they have to be separated at the recycling facilities by type (#s 1–7). The aforementioned bottles and caps you might be able to recycle together are actually made of different types of plastics — so how do they get separated at the facility? Before being separated, all of the plastics get shredded, and then the shreds are dumped into water-filled flotation tanks. One type of plastic sinks, and the other floats, making it easy to separate. The flotation tanks also separate out contaminants, as those materials also have different flotation rates, too.
3. Plastic can be converted into energy. Plastic is one type of solid waste that can be processed for energy recovery. This process reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfills, and can be undertaken with less greenhouse gas emissions than the processing of traditional fuels. The American Chemistry Council estimates that the U.S. processes about 13% of its solid waste to recover energy, enough to power homes in five states1.
4. Some types of plastic can only be recycled once. Some recyclable products, like aluminum or glass, can be recycled into the same material infinitely. Like paper, though, many types of plastic will degrade when recycled, making a weaker plastic the next time around. Don’t worry: That weaker, recycled plastic can still go into your recycling bin again. And while it might not be able to be reincarnated into another bottle or tub, chances are it will still find new life as a fiber for clothing or carpeting, or even plastic lumber. Meanwhile, scientists are working on a type of plastic that will have a longer recycling lifespan.
5. Only 8% of the plastic waste generated in 2011 was recovered for recycling2. As vigilant as we might be with our recycling, we’ve got our work cut out for us — especially considering that 94% of Americans have access to plastic bottle recycling3! With an increasing number of types and shapes of plastics being accepted by recyclers, it’s getting easier and easier to put plastic in the recycling bin instead of the trashcan, and hopefully to bring up that 8%, too. Many plastic containers are also great for re-using or repurposing before being recycled. Wash tubs, bottles, containers and other plastic waste, and use them for storing and organizing stuff or doing craft projects.
*Recycling rules vary throughout the country, and even street by street. Please be sure to check with your local municipality or waste hauler to confirm your recyclables.
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