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Power of Recycling: How It Works, Benefits & Ways to Help

Recycling—turning used materials into new ones—has benefits for both the environment and the economy. It can save energy and resources, reduce waste, and create jobs. But recycling doesn’t work equally well for all materials, and it only works at all if it’s done properly.

Whenever people talk about ways to help the environment, someone is sure to mention recycling. It’s a simple idea that makes intuitive sense: turning used materials like metal and paper into new ones. That keeps waste out of landfills while saving both raw materials and the energy needed to process them. It seems like an obvious win-win.

But recycling isn’t a magic solution. It takes a lot of effort, energy, and money to collect and process all that waste. And in some cases, the value of the material recovered isn’t enough to cover the cost. To understand why requires a closer look at how recycling works.

What is recycling?

Recycling means breaking down waste materials and converting them into new products. It has three basic steps:

  • Collection. Recycling begins with gathering waste materials. In some communities, residents and businesses take their recyclables to drop-off centers. In others, they’re picked up at the curb and hauled to a material recovery facility, or MRF.
  • Processing. At MRFs, materials get cleaned and sorted by type. Then they move on to other facilities to be broken down into basic parts, such as ground glass or wood pulp. Manufacturers buy and sell these components just like raw materials.
  • Remanufacturing. In the final step, manufacturers turn the recycled components into new goods. These may be the same as the original product, such as new glass bottles made from old ones. But they can also be entirely different. For instance, recycled glass may be used in asphalt pavement, while plastic bottles can turn into carpeting or park benches.

Traditional waste disposal is a linear process. Products are made, used, and disposed of in landfills or incinerators. Recycling, as the name suggests, is a cycle. Products are made, used, broken down, and used again. With some materials, this process can go on indefinitely. Other materials break down after a limited number of cycles.

Blue recycling bin

Types of recycling

In theory, many different materials are recyclable. However, the process differs widely from one material to the next. Some are very easy to recycle and offer big benefits—cost and environmental. Others are so difficult it’s a bit misleading to call them recyclable at all.

Paper recycling

In 2018, the U.S. recycled 46 million tons of paper and cardboard. That’s about two-thirds of all our paper waste and also about two-thirds of all the material we recycle. It includes:

  • Scraps left over from paper manufacturing.
  • Cardboard shipping boxes.
  • Cereal boxes.
  • Newspapers and magazines.
  • Office paper and envelopes.

MRFs bale up this paper and send it to paper mills. There it’s shredded, mixed with water and chemicals, and churned until it breaks down into pulp. This pulp is cleaned and dried to form new paper products. Recycled pulp can go into shipping boxes, food packaging, newsprint, paper towels, or toilet paper.

At the end of their life, these products can be recycled again. However, paper fibers get shorter each time they go through this process. Thus, paper can only survive 5 to 7 rounds of recycling.

Metal recycling

After paper, the most commonly recycled material is metal. While most metals are recyclable, curbside recycling programs generally take only aluminum and steel cans. These metals are crushed and, in the case of aluminum, shredded into small pieces. Then the metals are melted down, purified, and cooled.

The solid metal goes on to factories to be made into all kinds of new metal goods. Aluminum, for instance, can become soda or beer cans, aluminum foil, and even license plates. Unlike paper, metal can be recycled over and over.

Glass recycling

There are many kinds of glass, but not all of them are recyclable. Most recycling programs accept only container glass: bottles and jars used for food packaging. MRFs break these containers into pieces of uniform size, sort them by color, and crush them into tiny fragments. These fragments, called glass cullet, can be melted down and poured into molds to make new containers.

Curbside recycling programs don’t all accept glass because it’s a difficult material to handle. It’s heavy and breaks easily, putting workers at risk of injury. It also isn’t worth as much money as some other materials.

Plastic recycling

Look at the bottom of a plastic container, and you’ll probably see a recycling logo: a number in a circle of arrows. This seems to suggest that all plastic goods are recyclable. Unfortunately, that’s true only in theory. In reality, most plastics are so difficult and costly to recycle that it’s just not worth doing.

There are several types of plastic made from different resins. Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is labeled as #1 on the recycling logo. It’s used in water and soda bottles. High-density polyethylene (HDPE), labeled as #2, is commonly found in shampoo and medicine bottles. These two plastics are the easiest kinds to recycle. They can be shredded, melted down, and remolded, much like glass. However, this process degrades the material, so it can only be recycled once or twice.

All other plastics—numbers 3 through 7—are even harder to recycle. Thus, most curbside programs don’t accept them.

Electronic waste recycling

Perhaps the trickiest material to recycle is electronic waste, or e-waste. This category includes rechargeable batteries, old cell phones, computers, TVs, and all sorts of gadgets. These devices contain a complicated mix of materials. Some are valuable, such as gold and palladium. Others are hazardous, such as cadmium and lead. That makes e-waste recycling difficult, but also very important. It’s the only way to recover precious materials while keeping harmful ones out of the environment.

Electronic waste can’t go in the bin with other recyclables. It must go to a special facility where staff can either refurbish it or dismantle it safely. Some communities have dedicated drop-off points for e-waste. You can also drop it off at many major retailers, such as Best Buy and Staples. To find an e-waste recycling site near you, visit Call2Recycle, Earth911, or GreenerGadgets.

Environmental benefits of recycling

Recycling helps the environment in several ways. Done right, it can:

  • Conserve natural resources. For example, recycling paper means cutting fewer trees to make new paper. Likewise, recycling aluminum cans reduces the need to mine and smelt bauxite and prevents the pollution these processes create.
  • Save energy. Recycling often requires less energy than making the same products from virgin materials. This cuts down on fossil fuel use and the pollution it causes. Recycled paper requires about 40% less energy to make, and recycled aluminum takes a whopping 95% less.
  • Divert waste. The most common methods of trash disposal are harmful to the environment. Burning trash in incinerators pollutes the air. Landfills can leach toxic chemicals into water and release methane, a greenhouse gas. By cutting down on waste, recycling also cuts down on pollution.
  • Fights climate change. Recycling fights climate change in several ways. It cuts fossil fuel use, minimizes landfill gas emissions, and reduces logging. The EPA estimates that recycling cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 193 million metric tons in 2018.

Economic benefits of recycling

Recycling also has economic benefits. It helps communities and businesses by:

  • Reducing production costs. Recycled materials can be cheaper to buy and use than new ones. (This depends on the material and how far it must be shipped.) They also reduce U.S. dependence on imported materials, improving our economic security.
  • Creating jobs. Recycling requires workers to collect the recyclables, clean and sort them, and make them into new products. A 2020 EPA study reports that recycling and reuse provide 681,000 jobs in the U.S. These jobs boost local economies and the U.S. economy as a whole.
  • Boosting tax revenues. More jobs mean more tax dollars. The EPA reports that recycling jobs generate $5.5 billion in tax revenue—$9.42 for every ton of material recycled.

How to recycle effectively

Many problems with recycling are due to users putting items in the bin that don’t belong there. Often, they’re trying to do the right thing by including everything that might possibly be recyclable. But nonrecyclable items in the waste stream just cause problems. Plastic bags get tangled in the machinery, shutting down the conveyer. Small pieces of plastic, like bottle caps or straws, fall through gaps and get mixed into the glassware. This can make a whole batch unusable.

A better rule is “When in doubt, leave it out.” Only recycle things you know your program accepts. Check the program’s website to learn its rules. Some typical requirements include rinsing all containers and leaving out anything sharp, like broken glass or can lids. (It’s okay to recycle lids if you put them inside the can and squeeze the sides to keep them in.)

If an item can’t go in the bin, that doesn’t mean there’s no way to recycle it. For instance, many grocery stores collect LDPE bags for recycling. There are also services that collect a wide variety of other items, such as textiles, tires, and batteries. Sites like Recycle Nation and Earth 911 can help you find different kinds of recycling facilities in your area.

Another way to help make recycling work is to “close the cycle” by buying recycled goods. Look for the phrase “post-consumer recycled content” on the product label. If it says just “recycled content,” that may mean it’s made from manufacturing scraps. “Post-consumer” refers to material that’s been used and then recovered from the waste stream.

Separate bins: compost, waste, and recycling

Beyond recycling: reduce and reuse

There’s a reason the saying “Reduce, reuse, recycle” puts “recycle” last. Both reducing and reusing can save more energy, more resources, and more money than recycling. Reducing means creating less waste by buying less stuff. Reusing means finding new uses for stuff you no longer need.

Ways to reduce and reuse include:

  • Looking for products with less packaging.
  • Replacing disposable products with reusable ones.
  • Avoiding food waste by planning meals and using leftovers.
  • Composting food scraps and yard waste.
  • Maintaining and repairing your belongings.
  • Shopping secondhand. Borrowing, renting, or sharing instead of buying.
  • Selling or donating unwanted items.

Recycling: fact vs fiction

In recent years, there have been a lot of news stories about America’s recycling system being “broken.” One problem is that each local program has its own rules, and users don’t always understand what they can and can’t recycle. Many recyclable materials end up in landfills, while trash often contaminates recycling.

An even bigger problem is that there aren’t always markets for recycled materials. A lot of U.S. recyclables, especially plastics, used to get shipped to China. However, in 2018, the nation stopped accepting most of them, leaving recycling facilities scrambling to find new buyers. In many cases, they didn’t succeed and started dumping recyclables straight into the trash. Some towns closed down their recycling programs entirely.

Recycling definitely makes sense for metals and cardboard, and sometimes for glass as well. The biggest problem is plastic. It’s hard to collect and sort, and it has little monetary value. Worse, recycling it can actually harm the environment. When plastic went to China, it wasn’t always handled carefully and often ended up in the ocean. Even when it’s recycled properly, around 13% of it turns into harmful microplastic pollution. An environmental economist interviewed by National Public Radio claims it’s better to throw plastic away than recycle it.

Innovations in recycling

Governments and businesses are working on ways to make our recycling system work better. New approaches include:

  • Deposit programs. Some areas have deposit or refund programs that pay consumers a small fee for returning bottles and cans to manufacturers. In states with these programs, about 98% of glass bottles are recycled, compared with 33% nationwide.
  • Smart technology. Replacing the recycling logos on products with scannable RFID chips can reduce recycling errors and improve sorting. Internet-connected “smart bins” can sense when they’re full and transmit that info to collectors, helping them optimize their routes. Combining these two technologies could streamline deposit programs, giving consumers credit automatically for what they recycle.
  • Chemical recycling of plastics. Currently, plastic recycling involves mechanical methods that degrade the material. Newer chemical methods break plastic down with high heat, enzymes, or chemical additives. This produces a raw material that could be used over and over—and it can work for all plastics, not just PET and HDPE. So far, most of these methods are experimental, and their environmental benefits are questionable. But one company, PureCycle, is already recycling polypropylene on a commercial scale.
  • Changing incentives. One problem with recycling is the lack of markets for recycled materials. To change this, some cities and institutions have started exclusively purchasing products with recycled content. Others have addressed the problem from the other side by putting limits on waste disposal or raising its cost.
  • Compost collecting. The practice of composting—letting scraps of organic matter break down naturally—is hardly new. But some cities and states are now promoting it on a bigger scale. In California, towns are required to collect organic waste separately and send it to composting facilities. Legislatures in New Hampshire and New York City also passed composting laws in June 2023.
  • Circular economy models. In a circular economy, businesses recover materials that go into their products and use them again. Rather than just recovering waste, they design products from the start to be reusable or recyclable. A simple example is printer companies that take empty ink cartridges back for refilling.
Recycling diagram.png

Making recycling work

The U.S. recycling system certainly isn’t perfect. But it’s an exaggeration to say it’s useless. At its best, recycling can save energy, prevent pollution, and fight climate change.

Individuals like you can help make the system work as it should. Make sure you recycle everything you can—and nothing you shouldn’t. The more people follow these simple rules, the more effective recycling can be.

At the same time, don’t make recycling your only effort. Reducing and reusing can prevent things from going into the waste stream in the first place. Combining all three is the best way to tackle the U.S. waste problem and make our economy more sustainable.

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