How Does Recycling Really Work?

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How Recycling Really Works

how does recycling really work

Maybe you do your part and every week you sort and rinse your recyclables, following your local garbage collector or recycling center’s instructions to the letter. You then take your bins to the curb, or haul everything to the depot and walk away only to wonder if you’re actually doing anything good for the environment.

Does everything that you put in the bins really get turned into raw materials and then back into goods and packaging? How does that work anyway? If you’re at all curious about how recycling really works, read on for our quick guide to the ins and outs of the process.

Take It Easy; Most of Your Stuff Does Get Recycled

Along with the move to single-stream recycling, many people allowed their cynicism about what is largely an invisible system to get the better of them, and began to question whether or not recycling really makes a difference. Even more than that – they wondered whether what they put in the curbside bins was actually being recycled.

You can rest easy. Nearly everything you put in your curbside bins, provided that it is prepared correctly and something that your hauler has indicated they will accept, will actually be recycled into raw materials that will eventually end up in new products and packaging.

The move to single-stream recycling was driven by advances in automated sorting technology. Recycling centers now use a combination of magnets, electrical sensors, lasers, and infrared technology to rapidly sort through the combined containers and other materials we put in our bins.

Recyclables have a value, and that value is driven by the fluctuating cost of the raw materials they are made of. Recycling centers are largely for-profit businesses that make money by collecting and sorting raw materials, which they later sell to manufacturers. Anything that doesn’t get sorted for recycling has to be disposed of, at a cost to the recycler.

Special Materials Recycling

A great deal of what gets sorted at recycling centers is either crushed, melted down, or pulped for conversion to its raw state as a material to be used for manufacturing new goods and packaging.

Some of the items that may be accepted in your area for recycling, such as batteries and printer ink and toner cartridges require an additional step to separate the highly valuable substances still contained within them from the packaging they are made of. Printer cartridges are sold to a separate recycling company that removes residual ink or toner for sale back to cartridge manufacturers, and sells the plastic packaging to companies that process plastic for resale as a raw material. Batteries require special handling when being recycled, but the materials that make them work are highly valued for reuse in new batteries.

Regardless of the recyclables we are talking about, recycling is a key part of doing our part for the environment. You can rest assured that every bit of value in the recycling chain is maximized by the companies that profit from what you would’ve otherwise thrown away.

[Photo Via: Challenge for Sustainability]

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