Where does your recycled bottle go?
Plastics you recycle can take quite a journey once they leave your house. Your bottle could end up being spun into a pair of mittens worn by a child living in Japan.
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Companies usually pay less for recycled plastic than for new materials, but that's not the only reason they use it. It's also better for the planet because it saves resources.Skip to next paragraph
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"There is plenty of [old] plastic available; there is no need to use new," says Mary Jarrett, president of Amazing Recycled in Denver. In fact, Americans toss out 14.4 million tons of plastic every year, according to the Plastics Museum in Leominster, Mass.
Ms. Jarrett's company makes yo-yos from recycled yogurt cups, a Fiesta Flyer disc from one-gallon milk jugs, and even T-shirts from green one-liter soda bottles.
The process at Amazing Recycled is different from that at the lumber company.
"We melt [the plastic] and whip it with an electric mixer," Jarrett says. "It becomes a foam that can be spun into fibers. When you stretch the green plastic really thin, it becomes almost clear. Then we mix it with cotton to make a white T-shirt that's 50 percent cotton, 50 percent soda bottles."
Even schools are exploring ways to recycle. Evergreen Partnering Group in North Reading, Mass., works with urban school systems to help them turn disposable foam lunch trays into recyclable material. In Boston, for instance, kids sort used styrofoam trays in school cafeterias. Bags of trays are picked up daily and brought to a facility.
"We have big machines that wash and grind the plastic until it's white, clean flakelike 'snow,' " says Michael Forrest, Evergreen's president. Flakes are melted into pellets, and then blended into a material called "polystyrecycle." The school system sells this to Evergreen, who combines it with other materials and sells it to companies that make new, environmentally friendly lunch trays. Forrest created his company to save resources and help school systems that need money.
"We save the schools waste-management fees, and instead of trashing [plastic], we turn it into cash for them."
Before plastic, people used amber, animal horns, tortoiseshell, and ivory to make household items. In the 18th century, for example, cattle horns were boiled in oil to soften them, then shaped or flattened in a press to make combs. Although a few scientists experimented with early plastics, it was Belgian chemist Leo Baekland who is usually credited with patenting the first truly synthetic plastic in 1907.
According to the American Plastics Council (APC), plastic is a type of synthetic or man-made polymer, similar in many ways to natural resins found in trees and other plants. "A polymer," says Judith Dunbar of the APC, "means, literally, 'many' and 'units.' Plastics are made of carbon and hydrogen and sometimes other naturally occurring elements such as oxygen and nitrogen." Most polymers can be heated and reformed over and over again.
Plastic wasn't really popular in America until after World War I, when it was substituted for wood, glass, and metal. Now Americans recycle 1.67 billion pounds of plastic each year from soda bottles alone, reports the APC.
14 20-ounce green soda bottles = one extra-large T-shirt
85 20-ounce soda bottles = filling for one sleeping bag
96 one-gallon milk jugs = one 6-foot-long piece of 2x4 lumber
1,200 plastic bottles = one 200-pound railroad tie