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Recycling: The Journey From the Recycling Bin Back to Your Home

What really goes into the process of recycling?

As the world is constantly seeking ways to sustain the environment, recycling is a word that is mentioned repeatedly. Most people know the basics of recycling, but not everybody knows how the process of recycling actually works. You may have neatly marked boxes designated for your particular items to be recycled—paper, cans, bottles, etc.—and you may drop them off regularly at the local recycling facility and never think of those items again. But what happens once they leave your house?

The journey for recycled products is a long and complex one. The process of turning those recycled goods into reusable ones varies according to the type of good being recycled, but all recyclable products go through the same three steps.

1.)    Collecting and Processing

There are several different ways of collecting recycled materials, and it varies by community. The most common methods of collecting recyclables are:

  • Curbside
  • Drop-off centers
  • Buy-back centers
  • Deposit/refund programs

Once recycled products are collected at these drop-off locations, the real journey of recycling begins.

First, the recyclable materials must go through processing. They are taken to a recovery center, where they are sorted and prepared to be sold to their various markets for manufacturing. This step can entail various preparations, such as crushing glass or cans, sorting paper by quality, etc.

2.)    Manufacturing

The next step in the process is manufacturing the recyclable goods into new products. This is where the recycling process hits a more challenging bump in the road. Recyclable materials are sold as commodities to be made into new products. The manufacturing process varies for each different product, whether it is aluminum cans, glass bottles, paper products, etc. However, each product must go through rigorous processes before they can be used to make something “new.”

The basic process for manufacturing involves:

  • Breaking down products into smaller components
  • Removing foreign objects (ink, paper, plastic, debris, etc.)
  • Removing more contaminants and impurities
  • Making them into usable materials
  • Manufacturing a new product

The manufacturing processes vary according to each product, and the processes can be very long and intense. These processes use huge amounts of energy, but they usually use a lot less energy than using virgin materials, sometimes cutting almost the entire amount of energy used when “starting from scratch.” For example, manufacturing aluminum cans from recycled materials cuts the amount of energy used by 95%, as compared to using virgin materials.

3.)    Purchasing

The final step of the recycling process is left up to the consumer. Now that the recycled products have been sorted, cleaned, and made into new products, they are now ready to be shipped to the stores. Buying recycled products keeps the recycling process going.

Let’s take a look at the paper recycling process…

Now that you have a good idea about how the recycling process works, you can get an even better idea by breaking down the process for one particular product. Let’s take paper…

Paper is used every day and in numerous ways. Some paper, such as toilet paper, cannot be recovered. Other paper, like writing paper, paper towels, and packaging paper can and should be recycled. As a matter of fact, paper makes up the largest component of solid waste in landfills. Fortunately, the United States is becoming more and more efficient at recovering paper that normally would go to the landfills. As of 2010, more than 60% of paper was recovered.


The journey for paper to be recycled begins when you drop off your paper products at the local recycling facility. The paper is sorted according to quality, and then it is shipped to a paper mill.

Re-pulping and Screening

Once the paper reaches the paper mill, then the rigorous work begins. Paper contains hundreds of contaminants that we never really think of until we think of it as being recycled. For example, how does that list of groceries penned on a cutesy background become a sheet of writing paper used for your kid’s homework? Well, it must go through a long series of breakdowns and cleanups before it can be made into anything new.

First, the paper must be broken down into pulp and screened to remove large contaminants. It is chopped into tiny pieces and made into pulp by heating a water and chemical mixture. The pulp passes through a screen, where foreign particles like plastic and globs of glue are removed.

Cleaning and Deinking

After it is turned into pulp, the paper must be cleaned. Mills clean pulp by spinning it in a cylinder; contaminants are thrown out or collected and removed. Once the pulp is cleaned, it can now go through the deinking process. (Think about all the ink that is contained on paper, especially newspapers and magazines!) The deinking process involves flotation, a process in which chemicals are injected into the pulp, causing ink, glue, and other sticky materials to loosen and float to the top where they are removed.

Refining, Bleaching, and Color Stripping

Once the ink is removed, the pulp must go through another stage of refining before it can be made into a new product. This involves separating fibers, removing dyes, and bleaching the pulp for standard white paper.

Making New Products

Now the pulp is ready to be made into new paper products. The pulp can be pressed into sheets to make new paper. The recycled pulp can be used alone (depending on the quality) or mixed with virgin materials to create a stronger fiber. Paper, unlike other recyclable materials such as aluminum or steel (which can be recycled continuously without changing its quality), can only be recycled so many times before the fibers are worn out and rendered useless. In fact, without using fresh fiber, society would run out of paper within a year. However, mixing the fibers with virgin fibers helps strengthen the fibers, which can be made into higher quality paper products.

The brightness, quality, and strength of paper products, as well as the types of paper products, depend on the wants and needs of consumers. Paper mills must meet those needs accordingly. Recycling paper products not only provides these wants and needs but also lowers greenhouse gas emissions, saves landfill space, and reduces the amount of airborne chemicals.

This is a video from Boise Inc., the third-largest North American manufacturer of sheet paper. This video focuses on how paper is recycled at their mill located in Jackson, Alabama, a mill that specializes in recycling paper products.

Back to Your Home

The recycling process is a continuous cycle. It begins and ends in the home. The cycle begins by choosing to recycle, and it ends by buying products that have been made from recycled materials. The Environmental Protection Agency says that there are over 4,500 recycled-content products available for purchase. The following list is a few products that can be made with recycled materials:

  • Garbage bags
  • Aluminum cans
  • Carpeting
  • Car bumpers
  • Cereal boxes
  • Egg cartons
  • Comic books
  • Nails
  • Newspapers

Recycling uses less energy, takes up less space in landfills, releases less greenhouse gases, and wastes less resources. With all the benefits of recycling, there’s no reason not to!

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