How Are Recyclables Processed?

When I see the blue and green plastic cans lining the streets of my neighborhood, filled to their brims with waste, I always feel curious about the fate of the contents inside. Those moments where your mind is flooded with questions about the mundane everyday sights and you think to yourself “what is life?” what does it all mean?” and “where does it all go?”

The good news is, our recyclables do go somewhere, and we are living in an incredible era for what happens to recyclables once they arrive at your city’s local center. Though it wasn’t until the 1970s that recycling really became mainstream, recycling programs took hold in towns and cities during the start of the green movement and “multi-material curbside collection programs” started becoming established.

Today, the system for both collecting and processing our recyclables has increasingly become more streamlined as advancement in technology and equipment has developed. While the concept may seem daunting, the whole process can be broken down into 3 main steps:

1. Recyclables are collected.

Every city and community is a little different in how recycling is collected but most cities have mandatory recycling laws that require recycling collection and center operation. Definitely look into your city’s recycling rules and regulations to know your area’s recycling guidelines. Cities also have different regulations for what you can and cannot recycle. It’s important to understand which containers that cannot be recycled or that can contaminate a recycling batch because of left over food residue.

Here are some examples of things that typically cannot be recycled:

  • Very greasy pizza boxes—if the box is not greasy it can be recycled, or you can just recycle the side of the box that is not greasy.

  • Single-use paper cups, because most are lined with a film of polyethylene (you can recycle the plastic lid separately).

  • Plastics labeled with the numbers 3, 6, and 7 (though some labeled #7 are compostable).

  • Plastic bags should not be put into your recycling bin (there are some centers in cities that will take your plastic bags, but they still need to be separated).

2. Recyclables are brought to a center and sorted.

Once at the center, the bins are poured onto large machines and with the help of workers, the contents are sorted by type, i.e. newspapers, plastics, cans etc. Workers also help to separate clean recyclables from soiled ones into different piles.

There is always confusion around whether you should wash your recyclables and a rule to live by is “the cleaner the better,” because manufacturers will pay more for the cleaner containers. Most facilities will not throw away a container, though, and most have systems in place for cleaning them—but again make sure to read your city’s guidelines.

3. Buyers purchase the recycled goods.

Recyclables are actually considered a commodity. After the recyclables are sorted, manufacturers will come to recycling centers to buy the sorted recycled goods. They then take them to be processed, break them down into raw materials and make them into new products. The most sought-after plastics that manufacturers look for are plastics labeled with a 1, 2, 4, or 5. Before buying plastic containers such as a butter tub, look at the number that it is labeled with before purchasing.

Consumers have played a huge role in this process because of the rise of awareness around recycled packaging. Because of this, the value that a manufacturer will pay for recycled goods has increased over the years. Manufacturers buying from the recycling centers is also what pays to keep the recycling center running.

There is also exciting technology beginning to develop that can process materials that are not able to be recycled and end up in landfills. The company PureCycle Technologies is currently building a technology that takes materials made with polypropylene and other material that can’t be recycled (like fabric) and melts it down to create a virgin resin allowing for a broader way of recycling waste.

The best thing we can do as consumers is aim to throw away as little as possible, following a zero-waste lifestyle. Start to implement small habits like bringing your own containers for food, beverages, and to-go food. You can also be mindful of the types of plastics you are purchasing by becoming aware of the numbers labeled on the containers. When recycling, do your best to clean your recyclables as much as possible while being mindful of water usage, and take time to read-up on your city’s recycling guidelines.


Courtney Jay Higgins is the Associate Editor at The Good Trade. She is also a Yoga Instructor, vegetarian, wellness and fashion enthusiast. Originally from Colorado, her soul found California when she came to get her degree in Visual Communications at the Fashion Institute Of Design & Merchandising. She has a background in telling a story through writing, creative direction and content creation. Check out her blog and Instagram for her unique perspective on the mergence of fashion and spirituality.