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How do glass, aluminium, paper and plastic actually get recycled?

Ever wondered what happens to an item after you put it in the recycling  bin? Where does it go? How long does it take to be turned into something new? What happens to used plastic water bottles? What about cardboard or those takeout leftover containers?
In this article, we will break down the recycling process of glass, aluminum,  paper and cardboard, and plastic.

Glass is made of sand, limestone and other raw material. When it is recycled, it is turned into cullets, a granular material of crushed up jars and bottles of glass. The reason we recycle glass is because it is not biodegradable and takes millions of years to breakdown in landfills. One kilogram of cullet replaces 1.2 kg of raw materials, according to James V. Nordmeyer, vice president of global sustainability at Owens-Illinois, a major manufacturer of glass bottles and containers. Glass unlike other recyclables, can be recycled forever. After it gets picked up from your recycling bin, your glass goes to a sorting facility where it will be sorted by color. After the sorting, the different types of glass are then crushed into tiny pieces. Contaminants are then removed from them. These contaminants could be anything from tiny pieces of metal or plastic that may have made their way into the glass piles accidentally. The cullets are then melted  and are stripped of their color through oxidization. And finally, they are then moulded into various products and sold.
Did you know aluminum can be recycled and reach the shelves as new in as little as six weeks? It is also one of the easiest materials to recycle because for most aluminum productsthe metal is not consumed during the products lifetimebut it is simply used making it easy to recycle without losing its intrinsic properties. Aluminum is a metal that is mined from the earth’s crust as Bauxite ore. Recycling it therefore  prevents approximately five percent of the total Bauxite ore mining in the world. Aluminum cans for instance are recycled by first being separated from other metals in a conveyor belt. The pieces of aluminum are then shredded and ready for melting in furnaces of 730 degrees. The furnaces are then flipped over, melted aluminum comes out of them into the ground into separate containers, creating aluminum blocks. These blocks are assigned different purposes such as creating new cans, creating aluminum packaging, and  even aerospace parts!. Other benefits of recycling aluminum are preventing fossil fuel emission and preventing more than 90 000 000 tons of toxic carbon dioxide into the air every year. In fact, the impact of recycling aluminum is so great that recycling a drink can made of aluminum saves the energy equivalent of a one mile car ride, equal to energy that can power your tv for a few hours. In fact, 75 percent of the new aluminum produced since the 1880s is still in use in one form or another. Making one aluminum can from scratch uses as much energy as making 20 from recycled aluminum. 

Paper is also easy to recycle. Unless it is recycled, paper becomes part of garbage dumps and landfills, contributing to problems like greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Paper recycling can alleviate many of these problems by turning this scrap paper into new paper. So how is paper recycled? Well, first it gets collected from your recycling bin. It is then separated and graded into similarly graded paper. This is important because different grades of paper have different amounts of fiber in them. The graded paper is then turned into pulp using water, hydrogen peroxide and caustic soda soap. This pulp is cleaned of off any non-paper debris and is now ready for de-inking! Once it is whitened, it is fed into rollers and then dried. The dried pulp is then turned into paper. Unlike Aluminum, paper loses some of its quality after recycling and will eventually become non recyclable. Therefore, it is encouraged to use paper resources responsibly! By recycling your paper, you save trees and landfill space!

Of all recyclables, plastic is the hardest to recycle because recycling it is more expensive than creating it. Not all plastic can be recycled.  Different types of plastics must be processed in different ways and some recycling facilities are only capable of recycling one type of plastic. Sometimes packaging contains more than one polymer type, which makes it more difficult to recycle, so recycling facilities don't bother recycling it. The first step in recycling plastic is stripping it of any impurities like labels, and glue particles. Different kinds of plastics are labelled differently based on the polymers they contain. This is usually indicated by a number at the bottom of the plastic item. Plastics that can be recycled are indicated by one of the following numbers: 1,2,4,5.  Those indicated by 3,6 or 7 cannot be recycled. Some of these even contain toxics and chemicals harmful to human health, that can leech into our food or water supply. The process of recycling consists of collecting, sorting, shredding, cleaning, melting, and finally making pellets to be sold to manufacturers to make new plastic products. Of all recyclable materials, plastic is the most harmful to our health and planet, and the least recycled. Out of all the plastic supply ever created in the world, only nine percent of it has ever been recycled. Out of the 91 percent that still exists, 12 percent of it has been incinerated and 79 percent is still currently in landfills polluting our planet, and hurting our environment. Plastic has a life span of over 500 years which means that every plastic bottle you have ever used, your parents have used, your grandparents have used, and their parents have used is still on this planet! Don't let these figures discourage you. The energy saved from recycling just a single plastic bottle can power a 100 watt light bulb for nearly an hour. So doing your part in recycling plastic is totally worth it!
So there you have it! Knowing everything you know about recycling, what are your key takeaways? What will you do to reduce your ecological footprint on the planet? If you like this article, share it with your friends so they too, can learn all about recycling!

With Love and Compassion,

Team Karunaki

1st Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash

2nd  Photo by Chutter Snap on Unsplash

3rd Photo by Elevate  on Unsplash

4th  Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans  on Unsplash

5th Photo by Brian Yurasits