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Recyclopedia: Can I recycle it?

Recycling Road Map

Learn what happens to your cans, bottles, and paper after you set them curbside or take them to your local transfer station.

Explore our Recycling Road Map

Explore our Recycling Road Map
Raw Material Extraction Manufacturer Retailer Consumer Collection MRF Recycler

Raw Material Extraction

The first step in making aluminum cans, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and glass jars is obtaining raw materials for the manufacturing process. Raw materials, also known as “virgin” materials, are extracted from the earth through mining, drilling, and timber harvesting. The extraction process uses vast amounts of energy, disrupts wildlife habitat, and creates significant air and water pollution in the communities where it occurs.

But when we use recycled materials (boxes, old newspaper, plastic, and metal containers) instead of virgin materials, we skip the extraction process and the environment wins – over and over again! For example:

  • Making 100 percent recycled paperboard (used to package dry foods like cereal, crackers, and pasta) requires 50 percent less energy than making the same boxes out of virgin paperboard. (Source)
  • Nearly 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Aluminum is 100 percent recyclable and retains its properties indefinitely. (Source)
  • Producing new plastic from recycled material uses only two-thirds of the energy required to manufacture it from raw materials. (Source)
  • Producing glass from virgin materials requires 30 percent more energy than producing it from crushed, recycled glass. (Source)

Manufacturer

Tons of everyday products are made using recycled materials. From bottled beverages to cereal boxes, recycled content is everywhere. You can take satisfaction in knowing the cardboard boxes and magazines you recycle are living their next life in things like board games, hardback book covers, and toilet paper cores. Your recycled milk and detergent jugs become things like laundry baskets and lawn furniture. Aluminum cans are recycled infinitely (aluminum never wears out) into new cans.

Fun fact: An aluminum can typically completes its journey from the recycling bin or redemption center back to the grocery store shelf in about 60 days. Read more about aluminum cans to learn about the process.

Retailer

Packaged goods are shipped - mostly by train and truck – to supermarkets, pharmacies, and other retailers.

Consumer

This is us! We can all play a role in ensuring manufacturers use recycled content. The more we make conscious choices to purchase products made with recycled materials, the more those products will become available. The next time you’re at the grocery store, look for the 100 percent recycled paperboard symbol found on many well-known brands.

And, of course, after you are done enjoying the product, check Recycle Smart MA.org to figure out what to do with the packaging – reuse it, recycle it, compost it, or throw it away.

Collection

Massachusetts has two recycling collection systems: curbside and drop-off.

For curbside collection, there are two main types of recycling trucks – manual and automatic. The automatic type has a mechanized “arm” that does all the heavy lifting. Manual trucks require a person to lift the bin or cart and empty it into the truck.

Some trucks are divided into two separate “chambers” where one side is for trash and the other for recyclables. This is called “co-collection.” This third type is rare in MA.

When the truck has finished picking up all the households on its route, it heads to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) to drop off the recyclables to be sorted.

If you use a transfer station (aka drop-off), you are likely to see one of three systems: single stream, dual stream, or source separated.

  • Single stream (sometimes called “mixed recyclables”) allows you to put glass, paper, metal cans and plastic containers together into one bin.
  • Dual stream (sometimes called a “two-way sort”) means you put paper and cardboard in one bin and containers (glass, plastic, metal) in a separate bin.
  • Source separated means you sort glass, metal, plastic, and paper into separate bins.

Transfer stations with single stream and dual stream programs send recyclables to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for further sorting.

If your transfer station “source separates,” this higher value material is sold directly to mills and recyclers. By cutting out the MRF middleman, these transfer stations save money. You’re making this possible by doing a little extra work at the transfer station. Way to go!

MRF

At the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF, pronounced MURPH), recyclables are put on a conveyor belt where people and highly specialized equipment sort cardboard, metal, plastic, and paper into different “material streams.” The MRF uses:

  • special screens to separate paper and 2D objects
  • magnets and eddy currents to separate metals
  • optical sorters that identify the kind of plastic resin containers are made of and push those containers into different bins.

An average sized MRF handles about 300 tons of recyclables per day and costs close to $20 million to build.

One of the MRF’s most important jobs is to remove unacceptable items, known as “contaminants,” from the incoming recyclables. Here’s how:

  • Workers grab contaminants like plastic bags and wrap, large metal objects, and “tanglers” (hoses, cables and clothes), and throw them into trash chutes.
  • Plastic bags full of recyclables are also removed and trashed. There isn’t time to open and empty the bag while materials run rapidly past the sorting station (and who knows what’s in those bags!).

After the cleaning and sorting process, the MRF produces compressed cubes, or “bales,” of each material stream that weigh about 1,000 pounds each.

The bales of sorted material are now a commodity to be sold on the secondary materials market.

Once the MRF has enough bales to fill a truck (usually about 40 bales), they ship the materials to recyclers in the U.S., Canada, and to overseas markets.

There are nine MRFs in Massachusetts. To find out which MRF your recyclables are sent to, check out the searchable map below.

Learn more about what a typical day at the MRF looks like by checking out the Recycle Smart MA Newsletter: A Day in the Life at a Recycling Facility | Recycle Smart (recyclesmartma.org)

Recycler

Paper mills, steel and aluminum mills, glass processing plants, and plastics compounders are collectively referred to as “recyclers.”

These facilities specialize in processing and recycling specific types of material. This is where the recycling REALLY happens.

Recyclers purchase the bales of materials produced by the MRFs. Each material – paper, cardboard, aluminum, steel cans, and sorted plastic - is a commodity sold in an open and competitive marketplace.

The price that recyclers pay the MRFs varies depending on:

  • supply and demand
  • the price of virgin materials (which compete with secondary materials)
  • the purity of the bales (contaminants can bring down the price of a bale)
  • the season/time of year.

Recyclers use various mechanisms to break down and process the material they purchase from MRFs. For example:

  • Aaron Industries in Leominster, MA, converts pre-sorted recycled plastic into pellets through the “extrusion process” to make new products like plastic trash cans, whiffle balls and other household items.
  • Paper mills use a machine called a pulper (like a giant blender) to mix cardboard and paper with water and other ingredients to break it down into a slurry the consistency of oatmeal. Tape, staples, and plastic windows from envelopes are screened out in the process. The oatmeal slurry is then spread onto a large screen where it dries into rolls of paper which are used to make new boxes, paper, and other products. Read all about cardboard recycling here.

To close the loop, manufacturers purchase the recycled material to create new products!

Follow Your Recycling

Recycling is managed in different ways depending on where you live. And that determines where it goes for sorting before going to market to be made into new products and packaging. Enter your zip code in the search box to find out where your recyclables go.

Where does it go?