Recyclable Materials: How Many Times You Can Reuse Aluminum, Paper, Glass And More
by Kathryn Sukalich 11/12/12
If you have curbside pickup for recyclables at your home, you probably have a general idea of what materials can be recycled. Some products like glass and Recyclable Materials: How Many Times You Can Reuse Aluminum, Papaper can go into your bin without much thought. Other materials like unusual plastics can be a little trickier.
Have you ever wondered, though, how many times the items you throw into the recycling bin have already been to the recycling center? Some materials have probably made many trips, while others have made none. Keep reading to test your recycling knowledge and find out how many times common materials can be recycled and what unique ways they find new life.
Aluminum cans are one of the best materials when it comes to recycling, since there is no limit on the number of times aluminum can be recycled. Consequently, aluminum is a valuable commodity, and is four times more valuable than other recyclable materials, according to The Aluminum Association.
The Aluminum Association also points out that aluminum is recycled very quickly, with one aluminum can being made into another in as little as 60 days from the time a consumer returns it for processing.
Not surprisingly, the recycling rate for aluminum cans is high compared to other recyclables. Currently 65% of cans in the U.S. are recycled.
Answer: 5 – 7 times (into new paper)
Here’s where things get a little complicated. Materials like paper do not have an infinite life, but the answer to how many times paper can get recycled into new paper depends on the kind of paper we’re talking about. For normal printer or copy paper, you can probably send it through the recycling process five to seven times, but after that the paper fibers will become too short. At this point they’ll need to be mixed with virgin paper or used for other purposes, according to the EPA.
Newspaper, on the other hand, is already of lower quality. It can be turned into new newspaper or egg cartons, but not into things like stationary and magazines (the way white paper can), according to Recycle Arizona.
Paper is one of the easiest materials to recycle, and 87% of Americans have access to curbside pickup.
Want to see how paper recycling works? Video: How Paper Gets Recycled
Like aluminum cans, other common metals such as copper and steel can also be recycled over and over without losing any of their quality. This makes them great candidates for recycling.
It is cheaper to recycle metals like copper than to seek out new copper, according to Copper Investing News, and recycled copper is worth almost as much as new copper.
Also beneficial is the fact that metals can be recycled rapidly. Believe it or not, steel scrap can be melted down into new steel in under an hour.
Have metal to recycle? Learn More: The Basics of Recycling Scrap Metal for Money
Answer: Many times
Cardboard has has long, strong fibers, which makes sense, since it’s often used to make boxes for shipping. It can be broken down multiple times and made into new paper products, though it does eventually start to lose quality.
Many recyclable materials like cardboard aren’t repeatedly made into the same product the way glass or steel might be, so naming a specific amount of trips through the recycling process becomes more difficult. Cardboard boxes, for example, can be made into other things like cereal boxes and building products, according to the Illinois Department of Central Management Services. That’s one of the interesting things to note about materials with finite lifespans: they often find new life in different forms.
While cardboard was the biggest contributor to the waste stream in 2009 at 11.9% of all waste, it was also the most recovered material for recycling with an 81.3% recovery rate, reports National Geographic.
So many of the products we buy – wine bottles, pickle and jam jars, pasta sauce containers – are packaged in glass. This doesn’t necessarily mean glass has to be a huge contributor to landfill waste, though, because glass is another material that’s easy to recycle.
Note: Other household glass cannot be recycled with food containers. It must be separated because of potential contaminants.
Answer: Often only one time into same item, but depends on the type of plastic.
Where plastic containers and bags typically find new uses is in other products. Plastic fibers can be made into a wide variety of materials, including clothing, furniture and carpet.
The number of companies making clothing from recycled materials is growing. You may have heard of Patagonia, the first outdoor gear company to make fleece jackets from recycled plastic bottles. Now, even graduation gowns can be made from recycled plastic.
Baffled by those plastic codes? Earth911 can help demystify them. Check Out: Plastic 101.
Answer: It’s complicated.
Okay, so expanded polystyrene (EPS) is a plastic, so the same general rules apply. This is an interesting case for a number of reasons, though, since EPS is usually not accepted by curbside recycling programs and requires a different process to break it down.
Typically, EPS is 98% air, so one of the major problems recyclers face is the amount of space it takes up. EPS can be melted down and made back into more packing material, though, which often happens. Half of EPS collected for recycling went into making packaging materials, according to the EPS Industry Alliance, though you might also find it in your house as insulation or lumber.
To figure out how to recycle your expanded polystyrene, use the Earth911 Recycling Directory to find a drop off location near you.
The most important thing to remember is that the majority of materials can be recycled, and it’s worth keeping some of the 250 million tons or so of solid waste Americans generate each year out of landfills.
Need help finding out what’s recyclable in your neighorhood? Earth911 can help.