Skip to main content

From Your Recycling Bin to... ? All You Need to Know


Throughout the week you diligently placed your used glass, aluminum, steel, plastic and paper items into your recycling bin. No junk mail got tossed in the trash. No wine bottle went astray. And you even remembered to set your bin on the curb ON pick-up day (yes!).

You have the consumer recycling procedure down pat. But does a meticulous recycler like you ever wonder what actually happens to your recycling after it leaves your bin?

Be curious no more. Discover the processes behind recycling (it’s not magic!) and debunk some common recycling myths along the way.

Types of recycling

Single stream: If you dump all of your recyclables into one bin and set it curbside, your community participates in single stream recycling. Although extremely convenient, this method has some controversy due to the potential for contamination because all of the recyclables mix together. That’s why recycling programs ask that you don’t recycle greasy pizza boxes, pulpy juice cartons or other items contaminated by food.

Dual stream: When you separate paper into one bin and containers into another bin and set them curbside, you’re participating in dual stream recycling, the most popular form of recycling in the United States.

Pay-as-you-throw: Another less used recycling method is pay-as-you-throw. This collection method charges consumers a fee per trash bag, and encourages recycling by offering the recycling program free or at a reduced cost.

Drop-off centers: Recycling drop-off centers usually offer expanded recycling options. The downside? You have to haul and unload your recycling yourself.

What’s Next?

Once you send your recycling off in a pick-up truck or drop it off at the recycling center it goes to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where handy dandy machines detect and separate the materials. Workers also hand sort items to remove any non-recyclable materials that may have gotten mixed in.

And Then?

Your recyclables go their separate ways.

Paper: Once sorted at the materials recovery facility, paper gets compacted into large bales and shipped to paper mills to be reprocessed into new forms. The recycled paper fibers are then mixed with water to create pulp, which is also de-inked and cleaned. Once pressed and dried, the pulp is then ready to be created into new paper—in whatever form that may be.

Scroll to Continue

From the Organic Authority Files

Plastic: At the materials recovery facility the plastic is sorted according to its number (1-7). The plastic is then crushed into bales and sent to reclaimers, companies that process the plastic. The reclaimers feed the plastic into grinders, which churn it into plastic flakes. These plastic flakes are then cleaned and dried. At this point, each type of plastic gets reprocessed using distinct methods for the specific type of plastic. The plastic can then be reformed into various plastic products—from toothbrushes to chairs to soda bottles.

Metal: The materials recovery facility compacts the scrap metal and then sells it to mills. After exposure to high heat at the mill, the metal turns into molten liquid. The liquid is then molded into bars and sent to manufacturers to shape the metal into new products.

Glass: Unlike other materials, which break down, hardy glass can be recycled infinitely. After the materials recovery facility, glass heads to a cullet processor. There, contaminants are removed from the glass and it is separated by color. Because a non-removable coloring agent makes glass its signature green, brown, blue or other color, glass will always stay its original color. The glass also goes through other processes to be sized to meet “cullet” specifications, also known as furnace-ready recycled glass. The cullet is then sold to container manufacturers.

From there, the recycled glass makes up about 70 percent of the mix for new glass containers. The manufacturer then heats and molds the glass into its desired shape.

All you could ever want to know about recycling? If not, check out more information on recycling just about anything at

Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson



image: (UB) Sean R

Shop Editors' Picks

Related Stories