Recycling is a topic that all of us learn about in grade school, but we often don’t learn much about the recycling process itself. We grow up learning about the importance of recycling, but do you know what happens to your recyclables after they are successfully collected and hauled away? If you’ve ever wondered how recycling centers process materials, keep reading to get a better understanding of how the everyday items you recycle can be processed and converted into new products and materials.
Basic Recycling System Process
Every time you add to a recycling bin at home, your business, or a venue, you’re contributing to the recycling process. Technically, this is the first step to the recycling process. When it comes to processing those recyclables, there are three main steps along the way:
- Collection: The first step to the recycling processing system is collection. Some communities have collection systems that operate once a week to pick up recycling and garbage from your home or business. Other businesses, venues, or governments may hire private recycling haulers to take care of recycling stations on a regular basis. No matter how your recyclables are collected, they are then transported to a plant or facility for processing.
- Processing: During processing, recyclables are cleaned and then sorted. This might involve sending certain materials to different plants or recycling centers, such as beneficiation plants or centers where they can be reclaimed.
- Remanufacturing: After all the proper sorting and processing steps, recyclable materials enter remanufacturing. Manufacturers take these materials and craft them into brand new products. Some common examples of remanufacturing are turning old paper products into new paper and using recycled plastic in new bottles.
Different Types of Processing Facilities
As mentioned, there are many different types of processing facilities where recyclables might end up for sorting and processing. For example, a materials recovery facility (or MRF) prepares recycling materials for buying and selling to end buyers. Another example of a unique processing facility is a paper processing facility or mill, which specifically handles paper products in the recycling process. Some recyclables also head straight to manufacturing facilities after the decontamination and cleaning process. There are also specific facilities dedicated to glass and plastic processing, known as reclaimers.
The recycling separating process can vary between each recycling company. Some recycling processors work exclusively on a single-stream or double-stream recycling method, which changes the way the recycling is sorted at the beginning of the process. A single-stream sorting process means that all recyclables go into one bin and start at the same place. Machines or employees at the processing plant will then sort each different type of recyclable. A double-stream sorting process means that recyclables are already sorted when they arrive at the facility. Many double-stream recycling companies will provide their clients with separate paper receptacles to keep these materials separate from plastic, glass, and other materials.
Depending on whether a facility uses single-stream or double-stream recycling methods, paper processing may start differently at certain plants. During the separation stage, workers will monitor conveyor belts to pick out any metal or plastic materials that may have mistakenly made their way into the mix. Once sorted, paper products move on to the paper mill. The first step in the paper milling process is to place the products into a hot water bath, which breaks it down into paper pulp. The milling process then filters the paper pulp, removing any remaining ink and glue impurities. When no ink or impurities are left, the paper pulp is filtered and prepared for manufacturing.
Once glass materials are separated from the rest of the recyclables in a plant, they must also be separated again by color. Certain types of glass possess different additives which give the material its color. Workers or automated machines will separate glass into separate groups based on clear glass or colored glass like shades of blue, brown, and green. Once separated, the glass continues along the processing system, where equipment will crush it into smaller, more workable pieces. Finally, machines melt down the glass at a low temperature so that it can be molded and shaped into new glass bottles and other products.
During the recycling process, many plants utilize magnetic strips to collect magnetic materials such as steel that wind up along the recycling conveyors. Steel is one example of a very recyclable metal. It can be melted down and reformed into recycled steel products. Many metal processors and manufacturers collect their scrap metals and steel for recycling processing.
Aluminum is another common metal that you can find in recycling processing plants. Workers and automated machines sort aluminum cans and other products along the way. These aluminum products make their way to another part of the facility where shredders chop them into smaller pieces. Small pieces like these are easier to melt. Machines pour the melted aluminum into molds, which will become new aluminum products for manufacturing.
There are many distinct types of plastic that wind up in recycling bins and collections. In total, there are seven different types of plastics that need to be sorted at a recycling center. Some plants have advanced infrared technology that can sort these distinct types of plastic automatically. However, some plants still utilize employees for plastic sorting. Certain types of plastics release toxins when melted, so they cannot be processed like some of the above materials. These plastics need to be chopped up and utilized in other ways. However, some plastics can still be reformed into recycled plastic bottles for reuse.
With each different type of recyclable material comes a unique way to process it. We hope this brief exploration into the recycling process helps answer your question, “How do recycling centers process materials?” Encourage your own community or business to contribute to the recycling effort by providing ample recycling receptacles on your property. You can browse our selection of commercial recycling bins here at Trash Cans Depot to find the right recycling bin for your business or outdoor space.