Recycling is the backbone of environmental sustainability. It reduces our need to manufacture new products from raw materials, which helps decrease the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the air. For every 10 pounds of clear plastic bottles that get recycled, 3.3 pounds of carbon emissions won’t get created in the first place.

Have you ever wondered what happens when you recycle? Where do the 69 million tons of solid waste that get recycled each year in the U.S. actually go? That’s a question we posed to companies working to transform the recycling process.

Avoiding the Landfill

Tom Szaky is CEO of TerraCycle, a business that works with manufacturers to motivate their consumers to decrease home care waste. He says recyclable products are bought and sold by recyclers just like raw materials, and most objects only get recycled when the cost of collecting, sorting, and processing is less than what the recycled material can be sold for. Materials like glass, PET (a clear, lightweight plastic), aluminum, and paper are more desirable to recyclers than those that are blended or complex, like snack bags or Styrofoam.

“When a bottle is placed in a curbside recycling bin it is taken to a local materials recovery facility—MRF—where it is sorted by material type,” Szaky says. “It then goes to a processor to be cleaned, shredded, melted and formed into plastic pellets.”

Compare that to what happens when a plastic bottle or an aluminum can gets thrown in a trash bin — where it will eventually get buried in a landfill and take up to 100 years to decompose — and it’s clear why recycling is the preferred choice for anyone who cares about protecting the environment and preserving natural resources.

“Recycling reduces the need for materials from virgin sources and therefore reduces water use,” Szaky says.

The Problem with Plastics

Materials like paper and cardboard have a much higher recycling rate than plastic. According to Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former regional administrator for the EPA, just 8.5% of plastics today get recycled.

Confusion over what types of plastics can and cannot be recycled is partly to blame. Plastic containers bearing the 1 or 2 plastic resin codes — also known as SPI codes — are among the easiest to recycle. 

A bottle marked with a 1 means it’s made of polyethylene terephthalate, commonly referred to as PET, and better known as single-use plastic as it breaks apart quickly from repeated use. This is accepted readily at recycling centers, and often upcycled into fiber used in fleece or carpets. Code 2, tyypically found on packaging for detergent or even milk, is made of high-density polyethylene or HDPE. This plastic is hardy, it can go from your freezer to your counter, and recycling centers will take it too.

Although few consumers check the resin code before throwing their containers away, it’s important to note that many recycling programs will not accept products with codes 3 through 7  for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it’s just not cost effective, or centers may not be able to handle breaking down the material. For example, plastic marked with code 6, usually found on clam-shell takeout containers, is made of polysterene, which can break apart into styrene, considered a hazardous byproduct.

“Plastic beverage bottles, especially if they carry mandatory deposits, achieve the highest recycling rates for plastics,” Enck says.

One simple rule of thumb: Plastics with a bottleneck, like milk jugs and soda bottles, can usually be recycled, while plastic bags, plastic packagingare headed for the landfill. That includes most single-use plastics, particularly straws and plastic utensils. While some can be easily recycled, centers won’t accept them all, including smaller items which can be too small to be sorted.

Reducing Water Waste

Single-use packaging, in particular, is creating a growing problem for manufacturers and consumers alike. Szaky says the process of extracting virgin raw materials, coupled with the manufacturing processes used to create single-use packaging, requires significant amounts of water. That’s always been important, but especially in 2022, with intense droughts and other climate change issues plaguing the West. 

“With plastic, it is estimated that it takes about 1.4 gallons of water to produce one single-use water or soda bottle,” Szaky says. “With paper, it is estimated that it takes 10 liters of water to produce one sheet of paper and that each ton of recycled paper can avoid the use of 26,500 liters, or 7,000 gallons of water.”

In the U.S. alone, consumers generate about 50 kilograms of single use or throwaway plastic per person, each year. Some of that can be recycled, some can’t. The use of disposable goods reportedly increased from 30% to 40% during the Covid-19 pandemic, at the same time that bans on imported recyclables in countries like China made it harder for countries like the U.S. to recycle. 

Manufacturers are aware of the challenges that consumers face in recycling certain types of single-use packaging, as they are made from an amalgam of materials. \A longtime P&G partner, TerraCycle has worked with brands like Head & Shoulders, Herbal Essence, Pampers, and Gillette to develop more sustainable manufacturing and packaging solutions, to help the entire recycling process.

“The vast majority of products come in single-use packages and much of that packaging is in a form that isn’t accepted in local recycling services for a variety of reasons,” Szaky says. “Recycling is a way to capture and recycle those items that would otherwise go to landfills, and also address the shortage of raw materials needed by manufacturers who want to use more recycled inputs in their packaging.”