What Happens to My Recycling After I Drop It Off?


Recycling-processWhether you drop your recycling off at a common bin and sort it out by glass, paper, cardboard and plastic or you throw it all in one can and roll it to the curb, you probably aren’t exactly sure what happens to it from there. You figure it’s repurposed instead of being buried in landfill somewhere. But how?

Want to know what happens to your recycling after it’s collected? Some people wonder if it’s really recycled. In most cases, if it can be recycled, it probably is.

The materials you throw in the recycling bin have value. They are broken down and turned into raw materials that manufacturers purchase. In some cases, they might cost more than new raw materials, but that’s becoming less and less common as recycling technology advances and as the materials become more readily available. Even if recycled material costs a premium, consumers are often willing to pay the extra few cents for an item made from recycled material these days. So, where does your recycling go?

From collection

Even when the recycling is pre-sorted at drop-off centers, its first stop is a sorting center, where the reusable material is separated from unwanted extras. It’s bundled together for easier shipping and sent off to product-specific centers in most cases.

Paper and cardboard

In most cases, paper has to be white paper or newsprint and it can’t be shredded. Most sorting stations don’t have the capacity to deal with those little shards of paper and it’s not easily bundled.

Once paper reaches its recycling center, a chemical process removes any ink from the fibers.

From there, water and additives turn the paper to pulp and wash it. In some instances, recyclers add wood pulp to strengthen the paper before it’s bleached, strained, drained, squeezed and rolled flat to form brand new paper or newspaper.

The process for cardboard is similar, though more wood pulp is added to the mixture to strengthen the board.


Glass recycling plants smash glass bottles and use magnets and vacuums to remove unwanted labels and caps before blending the shattered pieces with silica sand, soda ash and limestone. The new mixture is shipped to glass plants where it’s blown into new bottles for beverages. The process can be repeated over and over again for glass.

But don’t toss tiny pieces of broken glass in the recycling. It usually can’t be used.


Not all plastics can be recycled by all centers. Those with the symbols 1-7 branded into them can all be recycled somewhere. However, those with the symbols 3, 4 and 5 are the hardest to recycle. These are the poly plastics. No. 3 contains polyvinyl chloride. No. 4 contains polyethylene and No. 5 contains polypropylene. These types of plastics are used in plastic wrap, plastic bags, certain household containers, plastic bottle tops and carpets.

Most recycling centers don’t accept these types of plastics. Those that do take them have a limited market for the materials. Several organizations are working to find ways to recycle more plastics.

Those plastics that can be recycled are cleaned, melted and turned into pellets that are sold to manufacturers all over the world. China is the world’s largest importer of recycled plastics.


Those soda cans are one of the simplest items to recycle. The cans are broken into shards and melted down to form ingots –nuggets – of pure aluminum. They are sold to manufacturers who turn them into soda cans again. Aluminum is one of few recyclable items that can be reused over and over again.

Recycling for the environment

Recycling is important because it prevents us from overfilling our landfills and over-mining or logging the Earth for new raw materials. If you’d like to learn more about green living, contact the Energy Resource Center about what you can do to reduce your home energy consumption.

We perform free home energy audits and make free home efficiency improvements for income-qualified people in the Denver Metro area, the Pikes Peak Region and the San Luis Valley.

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