If you participate in a local curbside or drop-off recycling program, you can be proud when you see items on the store shelf made from recycled materials—you helped put them there! While a plethora of recycled materials are utilized today for the creation of new products, chances are, many of the products you see are manufactured from the chief components of your recycling program: paper, glass, plastic, and aluminum and steel cans. Let’s take a closer look at these five materials.
The paper we use today has been primarily made of wood pulp for the past 200 years. Prior to that, paper was derived from rags and textiles. However, the earliest known paper to enter history some 2,000 years ago by the Chinese was paper made from bamboo fibers, mulberry bark, and linen. In today’s eco-conscious society, we recycle waste paper into new paper by breaking it down into smaller fibers and mixing it with water to create pulp. The pulp is then cleaned to remove ink and weak fibers before it is converted back into paper.
When it comes to recycled materials, glass is one of the easiest to process since it is 100% recyclable and can be used over and over without sacrificing quality. It’s encouraging to note that Americans recycle nearly 13 million glass jars and bottles every day, but we have room for improvement—we are still discarding enough every two weeks to fill up both towers of the former World Trade Center! Since glass takes over 4,000 years to decompose in the landfill, it is imperative that we pull it from the waste stream and into the recycling bin. Recycling glass also boosts today’s struggling economy, considering the glass container industry has 50 manufacturing plants throughout the United States which generate $5.5 billion in annual revenue.
When items contain recycled materials, like plastic, it’s interesting to know that over 1.3 billion pounds of post-consumer plastics are recycled annually in the U.S. However, plastic drink bottles have become quite the antithesis to our recycling and conservation efforts. It takes over 1.5 million barrels of oil to manufacture a year’s supply of bottled water. Eight out of ten of those plastic drink bottles go to the landfill where it takes 1,000 before they will even begin to decompose.
At the top of our recycled materials prospects are aluminum and steel. Aluminum demonstrates the closed loop recycling theory more than any other material since it can be recycled and back on the shelf in as little as 60 days. Over 50 percent of the aluminum cans produced are recycled. To encourage your kids to recycle, have them save aluminum cans to see how much they can generate for their piggy banks—it might not be a lot, but it’s an easy way to earn a little extra cash. The U.S. Steel Industry has been recycling steel for 150 years, and over 65 percent of the steel produced in the U.S. is recycled into new steel every year. Steel recycling saves 75 percent of the energy it would use to create steel from virgin materials, which is enough to power 18 million homes.
When you participate in a curbside or drop-off recycling program, you play a significant part in giving new life to recycled materials. If you’re not already participating in a local program, contact your county recycling office or solid waste management district to learn how you can become more involved.