I used to think that plastic water bottles could be infinitely recycled, that every time I tossed one into the blue bin, it eventually came out to be another plastic bottle. As it turns out, that’s not the case. Some materials can be recycled infinitely, but plastic isn’t one of them. So if a recyclable isn’t reborn as the original item, where does it go? I found out most recyclable items are recycled down, so your water bottle may turn into a fabric or material for a park bench. But can that park bench be recycled? Can my “recycled” notebook be re-recycled? Just how many times can that thing be recycled?
Plastic: Once or twice
Most of the time, plastic is recycled into a fabric because it is no longer recyclable after one use. The shoe or sweater made from plastic bottles can’t be thrown in your blue bin once it goes out of style. If it ends up in a landfill, it will break apart over time and will just sit there for eternity. So the next time you think it’s fine to buy plastics because they can be recycled, remember it’s a (usually) one-and-done process.
The plastics that can be recycled more than once are considered durable plastics. These are items like bottle caps. Unfortunately, once the bottle caps are turned into a recycled item, that recycled item has to be turned into a fabric and its recycled potential is over, just like the plastic from the bottle the cap originated on.
The plastics that are not made from nurdles, which are called bioplastics, are made from things like corn and potatoes. Nurdles are the very small orb-like pieces that are created and then melted down into your favorite plastic item. Since bioplastics do not contain nurdles, when they break apart, they actually break down — unlike fuel-based plastics. The great thing about bioplastics is they have an unlimited lifespan. If you melted a piece of bioplastic back down to its molding state, you can make any item you want. The only negative thing is they are not recyclable in a traditional sense; that is, they can’t be tossed in the blue bin on the curb. Although these are a step in the right direction, most bioplastic farmers and manufacturing companies still use petroleum and other fuel to grow the actual produce item the plastic will be made from.
A great way to avoid becoming a part of this facade of recycling is to bring your own water bottle with you whenever possible, carry your own straw and have some silverware on your person. The impact those simple items will make is almost incalculable. Some great alternatives are Nalgene water bottles and stainless steel straws.
Your soda cans can be recycled an unlimited number of times. Yes, you read that right: infinite. Aluminum cans are the most valuable recycled item in the United States and have the highest return rate from the time the can is dropped off at a recycle center or picked up by your garbage man. Next time you’re thirsty, I highly suggest you grab a cold cruiser in a can — you’ll help the environment and make a little money while you’re at it!
Metals are categorized into ferrous and non-ferrous metals. All metals have an unlimited lifespan, and it is always a good idea to recycle them, regardless of how much you have. A great guide to how metal is recycled can be found here, and if you’re interested in how much cash you can make by being an eco-warrior, read “The Basics of Recycling Scrap Metal for Money.”
Paper: 5 to 7
Paper is almost as tricky as plastic, as its ability to be recycled is lowered after every reuse. Paper is made up of long fibers, so every time it is recycled, those fibers will be shortened and make it harder to be recycled the next time. The average number of times your printer paper can be recycled is about five to seven times. After that, the fibers will become too short and can’t be made into copier paper anymore. From that point, it can be made into more of a paper paste and can be used for things like newspaper or egg cartons.
If you’re more talented than I am, you can always make your own paper from scratch! Just follow these steps. (And please comment below if you do and I will leave you so many clapping hands emojis because, well, you deserve them.)
Last but definitely not least is glass. So am I harming the environment by using glass as my container of choice? Absolutely not! Glass, like metal, can be recycled an unlimited number of times. Because glass is harder to create from scratch, it is actually more cost-effective to reuse and recycle glass, making it the best item to buy at the store.
The only thing you have to watch out for is the type of glass. Be sure to ask your local recycle center which types of glass they accept, as different types of glass have different melting points and can’t be recycled together. Think of it this way — if you tried melting coconut oil and a piece of chocolate, the chocolate would melt slower and therefore they wouldn’t be done at the same time.
All in all, you’re a superhero if you recycle in the first place, especially if you live somewhere without a government-funded program. But now that I know metals and glass are the best way to go, I will always choose them first — regardless of access to recycling facilities. Comment below if you’re on this adventure with me and let me know how recycling is in your area!