The True Process of Recycling

 
 
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Recycling is very often used as a loophole to making waste. You throw your plastic water bottle in a bin and poof, the bottle was never used - it’s getting reused so that’s good for the environment… right? Well, yes. But there are consequences to recycling as well.

This article is not a way to discourage you from recycling when you make recycling waste. If you are making waste that is recyclable, it is much better to recycle it than to toss it in the landfill. Recycling is a great process and if you are not currently recycling, starting to recycle can make a huge impact. However, if you can start making changes to eliminate packaging, it is even better!

 

Now on to the good stuff… here is the inside scoop on recycling:

The 5 recyclable goods are Aluminum, Steel, Glass, Plastic, and Paper. When they are sent to the Material Recovery Facility (MRF), they are then sorted into their own categories and recycled accordingly.

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Glass is relatively easy to recycle. The glass must be hand sorted into bins according to color. The color in the glass is a different chemical added to make it this color. For example, brown glass bottles have iron or sulfur added to the mix to change the color of it. These chemicals cannot be mixed nor removed once they have been added. The separated glass is crushed and melted into new glass bottles, jars, and windows.

 

Aluminum and steel are recycled very similarly. They are separated from each other by a giant magnet. When carried up the conveyor belt, the steel will stick to a magnet above, whereas aluminum is not magnetic. The metals are placed in two separate piles to be shredded, heavily washed, and melted. The melted metal is then turned into sheets and distributed. This process requires a lot of water and energy to reuse these elements.

Paper and cardboard is recycled into 3 bins as well- newspaper, paper, and corrugated cardboard. The three piles are compacted and bailed separately and placed into a very hot water bath. The paper turns into a mucky substance in this water bath that is called “pulp”. This pulp is then put through screens and de-inkers to turn the paper into its original state. The leftover pulp is then dried in an extreme drier and turned into paper. This process requires an incredible amount of water and energy to complete.  

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Lastly, the real kicker, plastic. Plastic is separated into 7 categories depending upon the combination of oil and gas that make up the plastic. These plastics are then assigned a Recycling Number  from 1-7. The 7 types of plastic are hand separated into bins and recycled accordingly.

 
 

Now, although you may throw plastic into the recycling bin, this does not mean it will be recycled. Each plant sorts through the plastic and decides what they will recycle. For example, Recycling Number 5 is Polystyrene, better known as styrofoam. Styrofoam could be recycled but rarely is because of the small amount of yield the plant receives from truck loads of airy styrofoam. Heavy duty plastic items such as plumbing pipes are labeling with a Recycling Number 3. Although these are safe, they take a long process to recycle because of their durable nature. They have to be grinded into sand-sized particles and then melted accordingly. This takes a lot of energy to complete, so they are often not recycled.

As a rule of thumb, avoiding all plastic is best, but it is inevitable. If you have a choice, Recycling Numbers 2,4, and 5 are the safest and best to use. Recycling Number 1 is easily recyclable but may contain toxins. These are common items such as soda bottles and food containers.

Once the plastic is separated, it is shredded and melted down into other sheets of plastic.

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My sticker-coated water bottle is my baby. It has been with me everywhere and I would most definitely cry if I ever lost it. Carrying a reusable water bottle allows you to never have to buy a single use plastic bottle while out and about. Plus, you always have water when you are feeling just a little parched!

 

Recycling requires a lot of water, energy, labor, and money in order to complete the entire process. Not to mention, how incredible the pollution is from operating the recycling plants. In some states, recycling plants create more air pollution than any other industrial plant in their state. This is a major downfall in the recycling process.

Another downfall being the expense of recycling. From labor to resources to energy, the operation costs add up. For example, plastic shopping bags are recyclable. However, it is so expensive to recycle them that it is rarely done. To recycle 2,000 plastic bags costs $4,000 USD (3,263 Euros). The plant can only sell that amount of yielded plastic back for $32USD (26 Euros). This margin of loss is too large for many plants to consider recycling them. Try putting them in drop boxes at local stores for the best means of recycling.

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The recycling process may be grueling, expensive, and resource dependent but if you buy plastic it is still better to recycle it than to throw it away. When plastic gets wet with rain water in a landfill, they leach extremely toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater. It is still better to recycle than to throw items that could be recycled into a landfill. Do not take this as an excuse to avoid recycling. But, take it as an excuse to start buying less packaged items! Take this knowledge and motivate ourselves and others to change our actions.

Try to carry a refillable water bottle or coffee mug. Bring your own cutlery. Buy food in bulk bags. There are many options to minimize the packaging you use. Take this information and use what you wish, but take it as motivation to start a more package-free lifestyle. Take it as motivation to want to make a change. Recycling - a concept thought to be simple and eco-friendly - still has implications on the environment. But, you can still make a huge difference it. Small acts when added together will make a larger difference!

 
 
 

WORDS & PHOTOS By MADI GIORDANO