Recyclables: What Happens to Cardboard, Plastic, and Aluminum?

Recycling - How It's Made

Follow along as we delve into the process of recycling.

Are you considering starting to recycle because you care about the environment? Or do you recycle, but still wonder what happens to your recyclables after you take them to a depot? Check out this video to find out how your recyclables are taken care of after they leave your home or business:

First, when the truck arrives at your home or business to haul away your recyclables, the sorting starts right then and there. The truck driver will sort paper, cardboard, and other boxes into one receptacle; and glass, plastics, and metals into another. When the truck arrives at the recycling plant, each receptacle is dumped into a separate area and onto multiple, different conveyor belts. The metals are then sorted from the glass and plastic.

In the paper and boxes area, the line workers remove any material that may have got there on accident- such as plastic, metal, or glass. Afterward, the workers sort what is left into three categories:

  1. Corrugated cardboard (what brown boxes are made of)
  2. Newsprint
  3. Mixed fiber paper (such as cereal boxes, envelopes, and greeting cards)

The line workers on the glass, metal and plastics conveyer belt remove all of the oversized, bulky items. This would include gallon-sized containers and anything larger. A giant magnet picks up anything metal and puts it into a new location. This magnet, however, cannot pick up aluminum because aluminum is never magnetic. After the workers sort the aluminum, they will then sort milk and juice cartons to another separate area. The plastics are separated into 3 categories by the type of plastic, and glass is separated by whether it is clear or colored.

Once all of the materials have been separated, each category goes into a baler. A baler is a large machine that compacts the material and then binds it like a large bale- similar to the look of a bale of hay. After that, it’s off to the warehouse where the material can be sold to a recycler!

Recyclables: What Happens To Cardboard, Plastic, And Aluminum? 1

The next stop is the recycling plant. The bales of plastic are cut open and then loaded into more conveyor belts. The plastics pass through another area with oversized magnets to remove any metal that may have been slipped through by mistake. And from there? Into the shredder! These shredders work at unbelievable speeds. They can shred about two tons of plastic in just under one hour.

All of those previous bales of plastic are now tiny, little plastic flakes. The microscopic flakes are cleaned by friction and water. Any remaining glass pieces or other contaminants now sink while the lighter plastic flakes float. Even the dirty water is recycled by chemical filtration and can be used again later.

Afterward, the flakes are dried by very hot air and are stored in silos until they can be compacted. The compactors are usually around 320 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperatures fuse the plastic pieces together into what looks like little pieces of macaroni.

The plastic is now officially fully recycled and in raw material form. To finish the process, the pieces of plastic are melted and pressed through a screen where they are then cut into pellets. The average size of each pellet is about an eighth of an inch long. The pellets are dropped into cool water to keep their shape and then are dried off in a dryer. Several types of factories buy these pellets to make new plastic products.

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