How Recycling Works

Other Recycled Items

Bundled papers ready to be recycled.
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Plastic is a serious problem because it's very cheap to produce, and it's not biodegradable because of its long, complex molecular chains. When plastic is recycled, it's usually made into a new form. The plastic is sorted into different types and colors, filtered and sifted of contaminants, then chopped and melted into pellets or extruded into fibers. These materials can be used many ways: fleece fabric, durable construction materials, molded furniture or insulation.


Aluminum cans are a partial success story -- when they're recycled, they save 95 percent of the energy used to make new cans, not to mention the energy usage and pollution caused by the mining and refining of bauxite, the mineral from which aluminum comes [source: Essential Guide]. The United States recycled 51.9 billion cans in 2006. Thanks to incentives such as five-cent deposits, 51.6 percent of all cans are recycled, more than any other beverage container [source:]. That's why the success is partial -- as impressive as can recycling rates are, we could be doing better. When recycled, cans are chopped up, then heated to remove the paint coating. The pieces melt and mix in a vortex furnace. After being filtered and treated, the molten aluminum is poured into ingots, which are rolled into flat sheets ready to be made into new cans [source: Essential Guide].



Recycling electronic goods isn't as common as recycling cans or plastics. It's labor-intensive to separate the many components of electronic equipment, and market prices for electronic scrap aren't high. In fact, it costs consumers and businesses money to recycle electronics, and there's a variety of toxic materials found in them, such as mercury, lead and chemical refrigerants. However, there are companies that specialize in recycling this "e-waste" and can safely dispose of or reuse these materials for a nominal fee.


There are dozens of other materials that can be recycled. Organic waste can be composted and turned into fertilizer. Rubber tires can be shredded, decontaminated and made into insulation or other innovative products. If you're looking for new ways to recycle, simply give a moment's thought when you throw something out. Could it be reused or broken down in a useful way?