Recycling Explorer

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Recycling 101

The average American generates 4.4 pounds of trash per day, adding to the grand total of about 250 million tons of trash the United States accumulates per year. American communities recycled and composted nearly 35% of municipal solid waste in 2011, diverting 85 million tons to recovery according to the U.S. EPA.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans have access to curbside or drop-off recycling programs. Less data are available about recycling access in workplaces and “on-the-go.” Keep America Beautiful estimates that only about 12% of public spaces may have recycling receptacles according to its “Littering Behavior in America” study conducted in 2009.

The challenges and drivers of recycling revolve around issues like: capacity and technology to collect and process recyclables; access to recycling programs and convenient bins at home, at work, at school and on the go; participation rates; and global demand for recycled materials.

The Recycling Loop

The recycling process begins when individuals place recyclable products and packages in a recycling bin. The second step is when a company processes those recycled materials and creates new products. Finally, consumers close the loop by buying recycled material. This final step restarts the cycle and ensures the success and value of recycling.

Collection and Processing – Recycling collection occurs nationwide and depends on community participation. Recycling varies by community, but most recyclables are collected curbside or through drop-off centers, buy-back centers, or deposit/refund programs. After collection, recyclables go to a materials recovery facility (MRF) to be sorted and prepared for market. Recycled materials are like any commodity, so prices for the materials change and fluctuate with global market demand and quality of the raw materials.

Manufacturing – Raw materials, such as fiber, metals, plastics, and glass are then used to make new products. Many of these will become the same product in what is known as closed-loop recycling. For example, glass, aluminum, and steel can be used to make new bottles or cans. Many fibers, such as those from cardboard, are used to make new boxes. And most common household items contain some recycled materials. For example, recycled plastics are turned into new bottles, but they can also be made into carpeting, park benches, and fibers for clothing.

Buying Recycled Products – The recycling loop depends upon governments, businesses, and consumers choosing to purchase products and packaging with recycled content. The decision to “buy recycled” closes the recycling loop. Some products, like aluminum and steel cans, can be recycled again and again, while others, like paper, may be recycled once into bathroom tissue and then reach the end of its life. However, it is always important to buy recycled products to keep them “in demand” and support the recycling cycle.