The Science Behind Recycling: What Happens to Your Recycled Materials?

In our fast-paced, production-intensive world, it’s easy to overlook the byproducts of our work – the waste. We produce, consume, and discard at an unprecedented rate, especially in the business world. And while this cycle powers our businesses and economies, it also presents a significant challenge, straining our planet’s finite resources. 

This is where recycling comes in. It presents a practical and beneficial way to convert what we usually view as waste into useful materials, helping us reduce environmental harm and contribute to a circular economy.

But what really happens when we toss an item into a recycling bin? Where does it go, and how does it re-emerge as a brand-new product? Today, we’re doing a deep dive into the science behind recycling and how it supports business sustainability efforts. 

Understanding Recycling

Simply put, recycling is the process of converting waste or discarded materials into reusable materials and objects. It’s an alternative to conventional waste disposal that can save raw materials and help lower greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Recycling isn’t a new concept, and it’s actually been practiced for thousands of years. Early humans recycled scrap metal and other materials out of necessity. During the Industrial Revolution, the practice gained more traction due to mass production and increased waste. Then, during the two world wars, materials were recycled and reused extensively because of resource shortages. It wasn’t until the environmental movement of the 1970s that recycling as we know it today began to take shape.

In the twenty-first century, recycling plays an even more vital role in sustainability and environmental protection. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling can significantly reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills and incinerators. In the EPA’s latest comprehensive report from 2018, about 32.1% of the 292.4 million tons of waste generated in the U.S. was recycled, leading to a notable reduction in emissions equivalent to taking over 41 million cars off the road for an entire year.

Globally, recycling rates are improving too. The World Bank found that, in high-income countries, almost half of all waste is now recovered through recycling and composting. These statistics underscore the significant role recycling plays in taking care of our limited resources.

Let’s delve deeper into the journey of recycled materials and how this process can directly impact and benefit your business. 

The Journey of Recycled Materials

The journey of recycled materials goes through three key stages: collection and sorting, processing and manufacturing, and selling and reuse.

Collection and Sorting

The journey begins with the collection of recyclable materials. When your business recycles products like textiles, cleaning supplies, and other recyclables, these materials are collected and taken to recycling centers. The role of your employees and customers here is crucial. By properly segregating waste into recyclable and non-recyclable materials, we help ensure that the right items get to the recycling centers, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing contamination.

Once at the recycling center, the materials are sorted. This is usually done both by hand and with automated machinery, separating materials like paper, plastic, glass, and metal into separate categories. For example, when recycling specialized items like candles, the recycling facility removes the outer vessel material of glass or metal before separating out the wax and the wick. Sorting is an essential step as each type of material has a different recycling process.

Processing and Manufacturing

After sorting, materials are processed, or broken down, into their raw forms. For instance, paper is turned into pulp, plastic into pellets, and glass and metal are melted down. These raw materials can then be used to manufacture new products. For example, recycled paper might become the cardboard for a new cereal box, while plastic bottles could transform into carpet fiber or clothing.

When recycling organic waste like food scraps or discarded food products, the processing involves breaking the food particles down into usable energy through anaerobic digestion – although composting is another common organics recycling method.

Selling and Reuse

Once these materials have been processed and manufactured into new products or forms (like energy), they are ready to re-enter the market. These recycled products can be found in a variety of sectors, from construction and packaging to clothing and electronics.

The lifespan of recycled materials varies depending on the type of material and the products they’re turned into. Some materials, like aluminum and glass, can be recycled indefinitely without losing their quality. Others, like certain types of plastic, degrade each time they’re recycled and can only go through the process a limited number of times.

By buying and using products made from recycled materials, businesses can contribute to the demand for recycled goods, thus closing the recycling loop and promoting the circular economy. Taking steps to avoid use of products that have a limited recyclable lifespan, like plastic, can help support sustainability even more. Thankfully, there are more alternatives to choose from than ever.

Different Types of Recyclable Materials and their Processes

Different materials require different recycling processes. Let’s delve into five common types of recyclable materials – paper, plastic, metals, electronics, and textiles – and look at their individual recycling processes and their impacts on businesses.

Paper

After paper is transported to a recycling facility, it’s mixed with water and chemicals to break it down into pulp. Contaminants like staples and plastic are removed, and the pulp is further processed and dried to form new paper products.

For businesses, paper recycling can offer substantial benefits. It reduces waste disposal costs while also helping conserve natural resources like trees and reducing the energy and water used in paper production. Companies that sell recycled paper products can appeal to eco-conscious consumers, potentially boosting sales and improving their brand image.

Plastic

Once recycled plastics are cleaned and shredded into flakes, they’re then melted and remolded into new products. Some plastics are harder to recycle than others due to their different chemical structures.

Plastic recycling can greatly impact businesses by reducing plastic waste, which is a major environmental issue. It can also lead to cost savings, since using recycled plastic in manufacturing processes often costs less than using new (virgin) plastic. Businesses that produce and sell recycled plastic products can also attract environmentally-minded customers.

Metals

Metal recycling involves collection, sorting, shredding, and melting. Metals are separated using magnets, and non-ferrous metals (like aluminum and copper) are further separated using eddy current separators. After separation, the metals are melted down and formed into new products.

Recycling metals can significantly benefit businesses by providing a cheaper source of raw materials and reducing the environmental impact of mining and processing new metals. 

Electronics

Electronics recycling, or e-waste recycling, involves collecting electronic devices like computers, appliances and other hardware. Items are manually disassembled, and valuable materials like copper, silver, gold, and palladium and separated out. Harmful elements like lead and mercury are properly disposed of to prevent environmental contamination.

E-waste recycling can help businesses manage their electronic waste responsibly, complying with e-waste regulations and reducing environmental pollution. It also allows businesses to recover valuable materials from their old electronics, potentially saving money. Tech companies can gain a competitive advantage by offering take-back programs or selling products made from recycled components.

Textiles

Textile recycling involves a series of steps designed to reclaim original fibers or create new, useful products. The process begins with the collection of textile waste from sources including hospitality and retail businesses and clothing manufacturers. Once collected, textiles are sorted based on their condition and type.

Damaged textiles or those at the end of their lifecycle are sorted by fabric type and color, then shredded into fiber, removing any non-fabric components. This shredded material, or “shoddy,” can then be spun into new yarn or used in products like insulation, carpet padding, or industrial rags.

Textile recycling can have significant implications for businesses across different sectors. For fashion and apparel companies, textile recycling provides a way to reduce waste and use resources more efficiently. Retailers can offer a take-back program like CheckSammy’s Drop program to help support the circular economy. For businesses outside the fashion industry, incorporating textile recycling into your waste management strategies can help reduce disposal costs and environmental impact from recycling items like uniforms, linens, and other textile waste.

Making Recycling a Part of your Company Culture

Businesses have a crucial role to play in recycling and promoting sustainability. By fostering a culture of recycling and incorporating sustainability into your core values, your organization can make a significant positive impact. Here’s how:

Foster a Recycling Culture

Creating a recycling culture within your business starts with education. Employees need to understand why recycling is important and how they can contribute. Consider providing resources and training that explain how to recycle properly, including which items are recyclable and the importance of cleaning and separating recyclable items.

Next, make recycling easy. Set up clearly marked recycling bins throughout your workplace and consider working with a recycling vendor like CheckSammy that offers recurring recycling services. Ensure that there are processes in place for responsibly disposing of electronics, hazardous waste, and other specialized items. Specialized e-waste recycling and cleaning supply recycling initiatives can help with these efforts.

Prioritizing Sustainability in Your Company Values

Developing a well-defined sustainability mission not only guides your organization towards steady and reliable eco-friendly endeavors, but it also showcases your dedication to sustainable operations to key stakeholders – including employees, customers, and investors. This fosters a sense of trust, cultivates loyalty, and bolsters your organization’s reputation. For a step-by-step guide on incorporating sustainability into your core values, see our recent article.

If you’re looking for assistance with a comprehensive recycling program for your business, CheckSammy can help. With an extensive network of haulers and specialized recycling partners across North America, we have the expertise and resources to build and execute a customized sustainability program for your organization. Contact us today to learn more.

 

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