What do these things have in common: a yo-yo, a kayak, a fleece pullover, and your school lunch tray? They can all be made from recycled plastic bottles or containers. In fact, the bottle you recycle in your own town can end up being spun into a pair of mittens worn by a child who lives in Japan.
The plastic containers you recycle can take quite a journey once they leave your house. Of course, they can also wind up being put to the same use as before. We're going to explore some unique paths you may not know about.
Plastic recycling began in communities in the early 1980s with bottle-deposit programs. Buyers got a small refund when they returned their empty plastic bottles. Recycling's popularity surged a decade later, when officials became increasingly worried that garbage landfills were filling up. They urged companies to use recycled materials. Now, according to the American Plastics Council (APC), 80 percent of Americans - nearly 200 million people - have access to curbside or drop-off plastic recycling.
Here's how the recycling process begins: People put used bottles, jugs, and containers in a bin for curbside collection. (Or they bring them to a local recycling center.) Trucks haul them to a recycling facility, where the plastic is sorted. Ketchup bottles and yogurt containers, for instance, are made of PP (polypropylene). They are chemically different from detergent bottles and milk jugs (made of HDPE, or high-density polyethylene) and from soda bottles (made of PET or PETE, polyethylene teraphthalate).
Each type of plastic is squished into a huge bale for shipping. Each bale weighs from 800 to 1,200 pounds and could contain 6,400 to 7,200 soda bottles, says Judith Dunbar, manager of recycling at the APC.
Bales of plastic are sold to reclaimers by the truckload, or about 40 bales. Reclaimers are companies that help process recycled plastic. At the reclaimers, bales are torn apart by a machine called a bale breaker, which rakes the plastic onto a conveyor belt. Machines shred the plastic into tiny flakes, and then they wash, rinse, and dry it. Then the flakes are melted and put through a machine called an extruder, which squishes the plastic into spaghettilike strands. These plastic strands are chopped into pellets.
Many kinds of manufacturers buy recycled plastic pellets to make products. Over the past few years, Ms. Dunbar says, a growing percentage of processed soda bottles - 36 percent in 2003 - are sold overseas, especially to Asia. Manufacturers use recycled plastic to make fiber for clothing and other products that can then be sold worldwide. Your recycled bottles could even end up in products shipped back to America, completing the circle.
Some companies make building materials from recycled milk jugs. "We get bales of milk jugs. Then we sort, grind, and wash them until they're flakes," says vice president Nathan Kalenich, vice president of US Plastic Lumber Corp. in Chicago. "We put it into machines, [melt it], add color and other stuff, then we ball it up and push it through like a big, grown-up Play-Doh extruder."
The resulting material ends up as patio decks, park benches, and even railroad ties. The company has supplied lumber to build the first recycled-plastic bridge strong enough to hold cars. The bridge is 30-feet long and located in New Baltimore, N.Y. It contains 68,000 recycled milk jugs that are mixed with fiberglass.
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.
"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