Here's What Really Happens to All That Stuff You Recycle

Here's What Really Happens to All That Stuff You Recycle

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Nancy Mitchell
Apr 6, 2015
(Image credit: spwidoff/Shutterstock)

If you've an avid recycler like myself, chances are you've wondered, as you stuffed all your bottles in the bin — what really happens to all this stuff? Maybe you're curious about why some places require you to sort out cans, plastic, and glass, while in other places, everything can be all jumbled up in the same container. How does all that disparate stuff get sorted? And does it really all find a new life?

A recent story from NPR has the answers to a lot of these pesky questions. If you have the luxury, like me, of throwing all your recyclables into the same container, you have what's called 'single-stream' recycling. The advantage of this approach is that, since it's a lot easier, way more stuff gets recycled. The disadvantage is that at some point, all that stuff has to get sorted.

The sorting happens at a 'Materials Recovery Facility', or MRF (pronounced, adorably, 'merf'). At the merf, the recycling travels down a conveyor belt, where workers pull out trash, plastic bags, and cardboard before the machines start to do their work.

There's a device called an 'optical sorter', which uses infrared scanning to pick out certain kinds of plastic. When the desired kind of plastic is detected, a blast of air sends it flying off the belt and into a collection bin 25 feet below. Other devices use magnets to sort out aluminum and steel.

But even with all this high-tech machinery, the convenience of single-stream recycling means that a lot of your so-called recyclables wind up in the dump — sometimes as much as 25%. The biggest culprits are wet paper, and glass that breaks before it reaches the facility, which can't be sorted. So try to keep your cardboard dry, and don't throw your beer bottles into the big recycling bin so gleefully that they break. That's a lesson learned.

To learn more about how recycling works, and watch some neat videos of all that stuff being sorted, visit NPR.

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