What Happens
After The Bin?

A lot of us have good intentions. When we’re provided the option to recycle, we toss what we think of as recyclable trash into the appropriate bin, and assume our job is over: Our waste will be recycled, and we’ve done our part. But, as we are about to learn, this isn’t always true. All plastic is not created equal. Some plastic, like the durable #1 PET (also called PETE, and when recycled, rPET), is inherently reusable—it can be melted down and reused again and again without loss of function. And other types of plastics not as easily recycled wind up in landfills.

Recycling Is a 5-Step Process

1. Collection

Recycling facilities gather available recyclable plastic materials in their area, from roadside collections, special recycling bins, or even directly from industries.

2. Manual Sorting

All plastic items that are collected are then sorted according to the various plastic types.

3. Chipping

After sorting, the sorted plastic products are chopped for melting.

4. Washing

A particular wash solution consisting of an alkaline, cationic detergent, and water is used to effectively get rid of all the contaminants on the plastic material, stripping adhesives and shredding labels.

5. Pelleting

The cleaned and chipped pieces of plastic are then melted down into pellets. These pellets are then sold to manufacturers who melt them down and use the material to make new products.

2. Manual Sorting

All plastic items that are collected are then sorted according to the various plastic types.

4. Washing

A particular wash solution consisting of an alkaline, cationic detergent, and water is used to effectively get rid of all the contaminants on the plastic material, stripping adhesives and shredding labels.

Below, follow along with our conveyor belt of facts to find out what happens to the types of plastic after the bin, and how you can become a more conscious consumer.

PET/PETE(Polyethylene Terephthalate)

PET is one of the most commonly used plastics in single-use products. Does NOT contain BPAs.

COMMON USES

Single serve soda/water bottles, cooking oil bottles, peanut butter jars, food storage.containers

In 2012, total U.S. bottled water consumption increased to 9.67 billion gallons, up from 9.1 billion gallons in 2011.

31%

of PET was recycled in 2014, or 1,812 million pounds.

Around 899 thousand tons of PET plastic bottles were recycled nationwide in 2013. 2 million tons was thrown away.

91.6%

less energy is needed to make rPET resin than virgin (or entirely new) resin.

The energy saved by recycling one plastic bottle will power a computer for 25 minutes.

Action Item!

Vote with your wallet! Select items made PET and purchase products made of post-consumer recycled content.

A container's recyclability is determined by 3 things:

What resin it is made from (the numbered triangle on the bottom of the container tells you this)

The shape of the container

And more importantly, the market demand for that plastic

HDPE(High Density Polyethylene)

It's one of the most commonly recycled plastics. Does NOT contain BPAs.

COMMON USES

Detergent bottles, yogurt tubs, milk jugs, bottle caps, hard hats.

The amount of HDPE used in bottles and containers has tripled since 1980.

Approximately 16% 
of HDPE is recycled yearly.

Up to 40% less fuel is used to transport drinks in HDPE bottles compared to glass bottles.

1 TON

Every ton of plastic HDPE milk bottles recycled saves 1 ton of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

PVC(Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC is a soft, flexible pastic.

COMMON USES

Plastic pipes, children and pets toys, teething rings, clear food wrapping, cooking oil bottles.

Almost all products using PVC require virgin material (new, not recycled) for their construction.

< 1%

Less than 1% of PVC material is recycled but its products can be reused.

100 years

Has a very long usable life—up to 100 years for a PVC pipe.

PVC pipes cost less—1/3 to 1/2 as much as copper or lead pipes.

Give PVC-based toys a second life by donating them to secondhand stores, shelters, or other parents.

LDPE(Low Density Polyethylene)

LDPE is resistant to impact, moisture, and chemicals. Does NOT contain BPAs.

COMMON USES

Plastic grocery bags, shrink wraps, dry cleaner garment bags, some clothing.

0.83%

of total plastics in the U.S. are made with LDPE.

While LDPE is recyclable, most curbside recycling programs, where we do most of our recycling, don't accept it. That’s because there are few facilities nationwide that see enough of a profit to recycle it.

13.8%

of LDPE is recycled in the U.S. annually.

The most common way to recycle this plastic is at grocery stores with prominent bins, or to reuse it.

LDPE has a second life after recycling as shipping envelopes, garbage can liners, floor tile, paneling, furniture, compost bins, trash cans, landscape timber, and outdoor lumber.

Action Item!

Contact your local solid waste authority or recycling center to see if it accepts number 4 LDPE plastic in your curbside recycling program, or your local landfill, and then save up a load.

California holds 12% of US population, but 25% of all US goods are recycled in California.

PP(Polypropylene)

Polypropylene plastic is tough and lightweight, and has excellent heat-resistant qualities. It serves as a barrier against moisture, grease, and chemicals.

COMMON USES

Straws, disposable diapers, potato chip bags, packing tape, rope.

Polypropylene is recyclable through some curbside recycling programs.

2.1% of PP is recycled annually.

Whole Foods Markets works with a company called Preserve to recycle #5 through their "Gimme 5" program. You can mail in directly to Preserve, or drop off at any Whole Foods location in the appropriate bin.

Action Item!

Contact your local solid waste authority or recycling center to see if it accepts number 4 LDPE plastic in your curbside recycling program, or your local landfill, and then save up a load.

PS(Polystyrene, aka "Styrofoam®")

Polystyrene, which goes by the brand name "Styrofoam®," is used to make packaging peanuts, cups, plastic tableware, meat trays, to-go "clam shell" containers, egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, and foam packaging. Polystyrene is also widely used to make rigid foam insulation and underlay sheeting for laminate flooring used in home construction.

35%

It is not recyclable and accounts for about 35% of U.S. landfill material. Best to avoid purchasing it, or reuse when you can.

Polystyrene is structurally weak, it breaks up easily, is so lightweight that it can fly out of recycle bins and back into the environment as litter, and is highly flammable.

Expanded polystyrene gets dirty easily and most recycling centers can't deep clean.

Other / PC(Polycarbonate)

The #7 category is a catch-all for polycarbonate (PC) and "other" plastics, so reuse and recycling protocols are not standardized within this category. Some #7 plastics can leach chemicals into food or drink products due to BPAs or Bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor.

#7 plastics are not for reuse, unless they have the PLA compostable coding.

PLA, or "polylactic acid", is a new generation of compostable plastics, made from bio-based polymers like corn starch. Look for the initials "PLA" on the bottom near the recycling symbol or "compostable."

It takes 450 years for plastic to begin decomposing in a landfill and then up to an other 80 for it to disappear completely. Recycling keeps it out of landfills, and thus extends the life of the plastic.

You, the consumer, have more power than you realize.

You vote with your dollar. Buy products that can easily be recycled, especially those with post-consumer content. Participate in creek and waterway clean-ups. Spread the word to your friends about the different types of plastics. If there aren't great container deposit laws in your state, reach out to your legislators to change that.

At the end of the day, recycle and reuse as much as you can—and try to buy products made of recycled materials and plastics that will have an infinite lifecycle.