Getting into a cycle of recycling

Nov 16, 2017

By Kelsey Gray

In elementary school, I always looked forward to enjoying some Sunny Delight orange juice when my mom picked me up from school. One day, rather than tossing the empty bottle into the trash, I told my mom we needed to save it. When she seemed a little confused, I explained that we had learned about recycling that day. While the recycling process is much simpler now, back in my elementary school days I had to carefully separate each of the items into piles and scramble to find storage bins for all of my collections. Once we had enough to warrant a trip to the recycling center, my mom and I filled the car and saved all the items from ending up in a landfill.

Eventually, all of the used goods we had collected were converted back into raw materials. After this, these materials were used to make new products. Some of the most common household items to be recycled are aluminum cans, paper, and plastic. In the past, people often reused or recycled goods out of necessity – there were either not enough materials to make something new, or doing so was too expensive. Currently we have access to many more “disposable” goods, which is convenient, but creates some environmental problems. While we should minimize the use of disposable goods, there are many reasons to recycle those we do use.

Reasons to recycle

  1. Reduce the amount of garbage sent to landfills
    Landfills take up space that people could use for other purposes and produce leachate, a dangerous liquid combination of chemicals used in landfills and the products of the garbage breaking down over time that can leak into our waters.

Landfill in Arizona. Photo credit: Alan Levine

  1. Conserve natural resources
    Recycling saves both renewable and non-renewable resources including wood pulp, fossil fuels, and natural gas.
  1. Save energy
    Sometimes it requires less energy to make new products from recycled materials than it does to manufacture a brand new item from scratch.
  1. Positive economic impact
    Recycling companies rely on robust recycling programs in communities for their income and their ability to create jobs. Recycling also saves money for populated cities that pay for landfill space.

Once I knew about the reasons recycling was important, I became curious about what happened at the recycling center and why some items are easier to recycle than others. It can depend on how the material is created in the first place and how much goes into the recycling process:

The Science of Recycling

  1. Paper – The paper is separated based on type, then a hot chemical bath breaks down the paper into fibers. A combination of magnets, gravity, and filters remove staples, glue, and chemicals from the paper fibers. Once the fibers are clean, they are rolled into flat sheets, pressed, dried, and cut to the desired size to be resold.
  2. Glass – The glass is typically sorted by color, then ground up into small pieces. These small pieces of glass are sifted and filtered using lasers and magnets. Finally these glass pieces are melted down and reformed into new glassware.

    Small pieces of glass to be recycled. Photo credit: CC Rogers

  1. Steel – Steel is the most recycled material on the planet! Scrap steel is melted and then reformed into sheets or coils. These materials are shipped to manufacturers to make new car bodies or construction materials.

Now that we can explain the reasons for recycling, describe the process of recycling for some of the most highly recycled materials, and recycling is easier than ever – it’s time to take action! Local governments run most recycling programs, so if you’d like to get involved or find out where to recycle, check out these local waste reduction programs.


Edited by Jennifer Schiller and Lauriel Earley