Most Americans have gotten used to recycling, and with the prevalence of curbside recycling programs, it’s an easy thing to do – most of the time. Products like glass and paper can go into the bin without too much thought. Plastics and other materials can be a little trickier and will vary according to the services available in your area. But have you ever wondered just how many times you can recycled a material?
Aluminum Cans – recyclable lifespan: infinite
There is no limit to the number of times aluminum can be recycled, and it’s a fast process. Currently, about 65% of all aluminum cans are recycled in the US.
Paper – recyclable lifespan: 5 to 7 times (into new paper)
Paper is a little less clear than aluminum. Things like printer and copy paper can go through the recycling process about 5 to 7 times before the fibers become too short. But that doesn’t mean it’s trash yet. It just means that the pulp will need to be mixed with virgin paper, or used for other purposes.
Newspaper can be transformed back into newsprint, or into egg cartons, but not into smoother papers.
Copper and Steel – recyclable lifespan: infinite
Like aluminum, copper and steel have a virtually inexhaustible lifespan and can be recycled over and over again.
Cardboard – recyclable lifespan: long
Cardboard is sturdy stuff with strong fibers that can be broken down multiple times to make new paper products. It does eventually start to lose quality and will need to be mixed with virgin materials or transformed into something other than a box.
Recycled cardboard boxes might become a cereal box or even a building product.
Glass Bottles and Jars – recyclable lifespan: infinite
Glass is perhaps one of the easiest materials to recycle and loses no quality even when recycled multiple times. Most recycling centers will separate household glass from food containers like soda bottles, sauce jars and the like to prevent potential contamination.
Plastics – recyclable lifespan: it depends
Like paper, plastics degrade when recycled and are usually only remade into their original products one time. After that, the plastic will become something different, including clothing, furniture, and carpet.
Expanded Polystyrene – recyclable lifespan: good question…
And the answer is complicated. Technically, expanded polystyrene (EPS) is a plastic, so the general rules apply. However, many curbside recycling programs will not accept EPS because it requires a different process to break down. EPS is mostly air, so it takes up a lot of space in its unbroken down state. It can be melted down and turned into packing materials, or even insulation or lumber. Check with your local recycling center to find out how to recycle EPS in your area. Oh, and yes, this is styrofoam.
The bottom line is that recycling may be easy on the consumer end – just put your recyclables in the bin – it’s far from simple on the manufacturing end. The important thing is that materials can, and should be recycled and that manufacturers are getting even more creative with how to use recycled materials.