Ask Eartha: Household objects find new life in recycling process
February 13, 2013
My 4-year-old daughter just took a
tour of the Summit County Resource Allocation Park with HC3 and brought home some really great facts. She knows more than me now and I’m curious. Tell me about where our materials go please!
– Maggie, Summit Cove
Actually the more you learn about the recycling process, the cooler it becomes. Here is the fate of some of the basic materials you recycle. Depending on current pricing at mills, items may be sold to a variety of locations and remade into a variety of things. But here is a sampling of where your yogurt container, take-out pizza box and other items might end up.
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Aluminum is perhaps the coolest story. Take another look at that PBR can. It is made from bauxite or aluminum ore, which is mined in many countries, including China, Brazil and India. The properties of aluminum hold steady no matter how many times they are melted down, so aluminum cans can be recycled an infinite number of times, conserving 95 percent of its energy in the process. Our mixed metals often go to Tennessee or sometimes get remade locally. That PBR can, once recycled, can appear back on the shelf in 60 days.
Paper is sold to paper mills often in Idaho, Utah or Mexico. It can be made back into paper usually 5-12 times or into something like blown insulation. Recycling paper usually involves multiple bouts of shredding, pounding, soaking and heating to turn it into the fibers needed for new paper. The fibers get a little shorter each time they go through that process. The shorter the fibers, the lower the quality of the new paper they can make. The recycling process saves about 40 percent of the energy it takes to make virgin paper. Yes, paper still comes from trees. Cardboard is often sent to a mill in Oklahoma and turned into gypsum board (drywall).
Glass goes to Golden where it is turned into more bottles, or concrete pavement, gravel mixes or paint. We get twice as much for separated brown glass as for other mixed glass, which is why we separate it in the first place. Glass itself often has silica as the main component, one of the most common minerals on earth and found in sand, among other things. Ingredients need to be mined and melted down in order to produce glass.
As for plastics, here is where it gets tricky. Plastic takes more energy to recycle than other products and can only be down-cycled. Meaning if you buy a bottle at the store, then recycle it, it cannot be turned into a bottle again, only into a product that can no longer be recycled. Any plastic that contains food is virgin plastic. Recycled plastics do have value however, examples include higher-density plastic goods, patio deck furniture, toys, carpet, fleece and other stuff. Approximately 80 percent of our plastics are shipped domestically. There is a plastics plant for #2 plastics right outside of Denver (yay!). Some plastics that we recycle do make their way to China. This does not mean they get trashed in China. Our research tells us this is not the case. And virgin plastic? It is made by extracting oil, refining it and transforming it into plastic pellets. From pellets it can be made into a water bottle or whatever you desire. Take-home lesson for plastics is try to use less. For starters, use refillable containers, buy in bulk, and buy things that don’t need much packaging.
That’s the story of your household recyclable items. The bottom line is that is takes natural resources, combined with energy use, water use and pollution by-product to make these materials the first time around. In all cases, recycling mitigates these environmental impacts. And our community recycles about 3,000 tons of common materials in a year. That’s a lot of awesomeness.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.