Here’s What Really Happens to Recycled Plastic

Here's What Really Happens to Recycled Plastic

This is what happens to plastic from the moment you toss it into the recycling bin to when its materials are repurposed into a new item.

The journey of plastic

Various plastic garbage on the light blue background, problem of waste sorting and utilisationAlina Kholopova/Shutterstock

Have you ever wondered what happens once you toss that plastic bottle in a recycling bin? We talked to recycling experts, who explained the journey of recycled plastic through the system and why much of it doesn't get recycled, and about how we can prevent plastic waste. Find out the 15 things you should never throw in the recycling bin.

Proper recycling starts at home

Plastic containers.crabgarden/Shutterstock

While you might think any old plastic container you toss into your recycling bin at home gets recycled, that's not the case. Worse, you may be ruining the chances of other items in your bin getting recycled by doing so, especially if you don't go the extra step and rinse out the container. (That leftover spaghetti sauce could ruin otherwise recyclable newspaper, for instance.) "Recycling is more effective when we limit wish-cycling—the tendency to toss every kind of plastic into a bin and hope that it gets recycled," says Perry Wheeler spokesperson for Greenpeace.

So what can you do? First, start by checking the number inside that little triangle on the bottom of the container. "Only PET (#1) bottle and HDPE (#2) bottles are recyclable in the United States so don't put other types of plastics in the recycling bin," says Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. The former are containers like peanut butter jars, salad dressing bottles, and water bottles, while the latter are milk jugs, detergent bottles, and some plastic bags. Here's what the other recycling numbers mean.

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