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Here’s What Really Happens to Recycled Plastic

Updated: Jun. 10, 2022

This is what happens to plastic from the moment you toss it into the recycling bin to when its materials are repurposed into a new item.

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Various plastic garbage on the light blue background, problem of waste sorting and utilisation
Alina Kholopova/Shutterstock

The journey of plastic

Have you ever wondered what happens once you toss that plastic bottle in a recycling bin? We talked to recycling experts, who explained the journey of recycled plastic through the system and why much of it doesn’t get recycled, and about how we can prevent plastic waste.

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Plastic containers.

Proper recycling starts at home

While you might think any old plastic container you toss into your recycling bin at home gets recycled, that’s not the case. Worse, you may be ruining the chances of other items in your bin getting recycled by doing so, especially if you don’t go the extra step and rinse out the container. (That leftover spaghetti sauce could ruin otherwise recyclable newspaper, for instance.) “Recycling is more effective when we limit wish-cycling—the tendency to toss every kind of plastic into a bin and hope that it gets recycled,” says Perry Wheeler spokesperson for Greenpeace.

So what can you do? First, start by checking the number inside that little triangle on the bottom of the container. “Only PET (#1) bottle and HDPE (#2) bottles are recyclable in the United States so don’t put other types of plastics in the recycling bin,” says Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. The former are containers like peanut butter jars, salad dressing bottles, and water bottles, while the latter are milk jugs, detergent bottles, and some plastic bags. Here’s what the other recycling numbers mean.

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Green recycle bins align a neighborhood street

Your recycling is picked up curbside

Usually, after you toss a water bottle into the recycling bin and place it out for pick up on recycling day, it will be picked up by waste collectors in a recycling truck, though not every state and municipality offers recycling programs.

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Pressed plastic and cardboards, sorted by type and color, prepared for processors for further use

After pickup

From there, it’s taken to a neighborhood collection or material recovery facility (MRF) where it goes into a sorting system, explains Jeremy Walters, community relations manager at Republic Services. Depending on the facility, the sorting is done by employees, optical scanners or both. The #1 PET and #2 HDPE bottles are separated from glass, paper, and the items that can’t be recycled. What isn’t fit for recycling is taken to the landfill. Here’s more on what happens when you put the wrong item in the recycling bin.

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shredded plastic bottles waste

After sorting

After they have been sorted out, the PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) bottles are shredded and packaged separately at the facility. The shreds are filtered to remove impurities like paper before the plastic goes through the rest of the recycling process.

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Plastic bottles pressed and packed for recycling
Menzl Guenter/Shutterstock

Plastics bales are sold

The MRF then sells the plastic bales to plastic processors, who will use the recycled plastic to make new products, explains Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. In 2017, 5,913 million pounds of PET (#1) bottles were sold in the United States with around 29.2 percent collected through recycling programs and sold to domestic or foreign markets, Dell says. Find out the most recyclable materials on the planet.

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Close up of a two stacks of blue plastic polypropylene granules on a table

The next step

In mechanical recycling, clean bales of recycled PET (#1) plastics go to PET (#1) processors to be melted and formed into pellets. (HDPE plastics undergo a similar process.) “A batch of separated PET (#1) bottles that are clean is easily heated and broken down to be made back into a water bottle,” says James Rubin, CEO of Enviro Waste. “A batch of separated PET (#1) bottles that aren’t clean enough can be broken down, heated, and turned into fiber (aka polyester) for clothing or carpets.” Not all of the PET (#1) is recycled, however. “About 28 percent of the PET (#1) material gets wasted in the PET recycling process,” according to Dell. “For every 100 bottles collected in the bale, only 72 are effectively turned into pellets.

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Fashionable Woman Wearing White Dress With Handmade Crochet Knitting Bag, Made From Many Colors Of Recycled Plastic Bags

Onto a new life

Post-consumer plastics can be remanufactured for a wide array of products including carpet, upcycled polyester for clothing, recycled plastic building materials for outdoor furniture, decking, and playground equipment. Recycled plastics are used for manufacturing new plastic bottles, containers for beauty products, and durable plastics such as plant holders. For example, each pair of Girlfriend Collective leggings save 25 PET plastic water bottles from ending up in landfills, each plank of Trex decking is made up of 95 percent recycled material, and Green Toys are made of 100 percent recycled plastic. Read on to find out how 22 companies are taking the initiative and getting rid of plastic for good.