Recycling Plastic Bottles

When it comes to home recycling, few images are more ubiquitous than the blue recycling bins at events, with one side for aluminum cans and the other for plastic bottles. But it isn’t just at events that Americans are recycling plastic bottles: More than 100 million pounds of plastic bottles are recycled each year.

When it comes to plastic bottle recycling, however, not all of the numbers are as good. A mere 23 percent of disposable plastic bottles, for instance, are currently recycled. This is the reason Our Happy Planet is so focused on sharing information, tips, and the cold-hard facts when it comes to plastic bottle recycling

But let’s not stop there. When we talk about recycling plastic bottles, we should start with a good picture of the data in the United States. For instance, consider these 10 interesting facts about plastic bottle recycling:

10 Plastic Bottle Recycling FAQs

  1. Plastic bottles can take up to 1,000 years to break down in a landfill.
  2. Recycling plastic bottles takes 88% less energy than starting with raw materials and making new plastic.
  3. Currently only about a quarter of the plastic produced in the United States is recycled. Recycling the other three-quarters could save more than a billion gallons of oil and 44 million cubic yards of landfill space—each year.
  4. More than 300 million pounds of plastic bottles—35 billion plastic bottles—get tossed in the trash and don’t get recycled each year. That’s a huge place where we can do better.
  5. And recycling a single ton of plastic bottles can save nearly 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity, nearly 700 gallons of oil, and 30 cubic yards of landfill space.
  6. Conversely, when an average person uses a single reusable bottle that eliminates the need for 100 disposable bottles annually.
  7. Plastic bottles are also currently one of the most common sources of marine debris, and when mistaken for food, can cause death for birds and fish alike. Because they don’t naturally biodegrade, they can sit in the ocean for hundreds of years.
  8. Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles each hour—the vast majority of which are single-use disposable plastic bottles.
  9. But you can help cut down on that waste, both by recycling plastic bottles and by investing in a reusable plastic bottle, or even by reusing those disposable plastic bottles. Well-made reusable plastic bottles can be refilled thousands and thousands of times, replacing literally tons of disposable plastic bottles each.
  10. Additionally, you can help cut plastic out of the ocean; some estimates are that by 2050, plastic in the ocean will actually outweigh all sea life.

 

How Are Plastic Bottles Recycled?

So while the number of plastic bottles that end up in the trash each year is disheartening, the amount of plastic bottle recycling that currently occurs gives us reason to be encouraged. Plastic bottles are turned into all sorts of other things, including new plastic bottles, bags, containers, clothes, even furniture.

But how does that recycling happen? That varies a bit, depending on whether the plastic bottle recycling is part of a single-stream recycling process or multi-stream; if need be, the first step is sorting out the plastic bottles from the other types of recyclables. Next, the different types of plastics have to be separated out—up to all seven kinds of plastic, depending on the facility (other facilities may only take a few kinds of plastic; you’ll need to look into your local recycling programs for yourself). From there, the bottles have to be cleaned and all food, liquid, and chemical residue removed if they haven’t already been cleaned; you can help by cleaning your bottles at home before adding them to your recyclables.

From there, the bottles are ground and shredded into small flakes, which are then melted down and formed into pellets, each roughly the size of a grain of rice. Those pellets are then bundled and sold to other companies, each of which can then melt and process them into many other different plastic products; in fact, if you think of the various plastic products in your own home, odds are good that at least some of them are made with recycled plastic.

And it’s really easy to help contribute to more recycled plastics! By recycling plastic bottles and other plastic products, we can help ensure that fewer plastic products have to be made from fresh plastic, which is a petroleum product. Even better, it means less trash. Recycling also helps create jobs for those that work in the recycling industry and in making new plastics from the recyclable material.

At work or in your community you can help develop recycling programs. And at home, there’s plenty you can do, too!

 

How to Recycle Plastic Bottles at Home

First, you’ll need to identify which kinds of plastic bottles can be recycled in your local recycling program. For instance, most plastic bottles are either #1 plastic (PET) or #2 plastic (HDPE), both of which are petroleum-based and both of which are accepted by most local recycling programs. Some plastic bottles, however, may be made with #3-#7 plastics, which are plant-based. Unfortunately, however, those plastics are rarely accepted by recycling programs.

You’ll also need to know how your local program prefers your plastic bottle recycling be collected. For instance, while most programs will ask that you rinse and clean your plastic bottles before recycling them, programs vary in whether or not they want the caps. Some programs prefer the caps on; others prefer no caps at all. So be sure you know the restrictions and preferences of your local program. Similarly, while most programs don’t care if you leave the labels on, some programs request the labels be removed before the bottles are recycled.

For better recycling plastic bottles, consider these 10 plastic bottle recycling tips:

Top 10 Plastic Bottle Recycling Tips

  1. Collect all your plastic bottles in one place. Really, we do mean all: Any plastic container with a neck smaller than its body should go in your recycling bin. That means more than just plastic water bottles; shampoo bottles, for instance, are a great example of a plastic bottle many people don’t think of recycling.
  2. Look into whether other plastic containers can be recycled in your area. More and more areas are now also recycling other plastic containers such as those that other food products might come in, such as yogurt, sour cream, and condiments. Some communities will even recycle plastic packaging, so make sure you know what is and what isn’t recyclable in your area.
  3. Look into whether the caps should be on or off; while many recycling facilities prefer the caps are twisted back onto the bottles, so the caps don’t get lost (and because most caps are made from polypropylene plastic, they can also be recycled), there are some facilities that prefer the caps off.
  4. Consider having smaller collection bins in other rooms of the house to make it easier to collect your plastic bottle recycling. For instance, you might want a bin in the bathroom for all of those recyclables.
  5. Recycle on the go. Not only do many public event facilities such as stadiums and parks have public recycling receptacles, but more and more stores are getting into the swing of recycling, too, as are some restaurants and delis. Make note of the places in your community where you can recycle on the go and you’re less likely to inadvertently toss plastic bottle recycling in the trash when you’re out and about or stop to clean out your car.
  6. Make it easy for others to get into the swing of recycling plastic bottles. For instance, if you’re hosting a get-together, make it easy for your guests to recycle by clearly marking where the recycling is and what items are recyclable. And this can make a huge difference, as big get-togethers are one of the places where we create the most waste; the EPA, for instance, says that some big college stadiums can generate up to 100 tons of waste per game!
  7. Seek out recycled products. Lots of materials are now made from recycled plastics, including soft fabrics made by recycling plastic bottles! Other products that can be made from recycled plastics include patio decking, food storage containers, kitchen utensils, patio furniture, and much, much more. And buying recycled products helps encourage manufacturers to keep using recycled materials!
  8. Do your research. Many communities and towns will publish online exactly what items can or cannot be recycled in your area. Online directories such as iwantotberecycled.org can also help.
  9. Ask questions. If anything in your research is unclear, ask. Often times there may be an explanation that can help you recycle more efficiently.
  10. Look for other ways to recycle. When it comes to plastic bottle recycling, there are often gaps in what can and can be recycled. Look at ways you can help fill in those gaps, whether that’s helping encourage the addition of cap recycling, for instance, or helping your community develop more drop-off points.

 

Should You Crush Plastic Bottles for Recycling?

The short answer? Maybe. The longer answer? It depends on your local recycling program.

Just like it varies from community to community as to whether you should leave the caps on or take the caps off, it varies as to whether or not you should crush your plastic bottle recycling. If your community uses single-stream recycling, where everything is collected together and then sorted at your local Material Recovery Facility (MRF), flattened bottles can accidentally get sorted into the paper stream, which can then contaminate that load. So in that scenario, you definitely shouldn’t crush your plastic bottle recycling.

If your community uses multi-stream recycling, however, where you sort your recycling before it is collected, it still may vary depending on the preferences of your local program. Yes, flattened plastic bottles take up less space, and that can help save on space in the recycling hauler on the way to the facility, but ultimately, it depends on your local program.

This is a good place, too, to remind you that every program has their own specifications about what to do with bottle caps. Keeping the cap on can cause contamination in facilities that aren’t equipped to process capped bottles, so do your research. (The same goes for aluminum cans, too. When it comes to crushing, check in with your local recycling program first!)

How Much Money Can You Make From Recycling Plastic Bottles?

Given how many millions of plastic bottles are sold each year, it seems pretty reasonable to think that you ought to be able to make some money by recycling plastic bottles.

Let’s look at how you might be able to put some cash in your pocket while also helping the environment with plastic bottle recycling.

First, think creatively. For instance, some local businesses may be willing to pay you to pick up their plastic bottle recycling. If that’s the case, you can get paid twice for recycling plastic bottles in those instances. Even if they aren’t willing to pay, though, they may still work with you to set up a drop box from which you can collect plastic bottle recycling and then you can still make money recycling those bottles.

Second, after you collect plastics, be sure to do a good job of sorting your plastic bottle recycling. Plastic bottles that are recyclable should also be marked as to which of the seven types of plastics they are, and sorting your plastic bottle recycling in this way can help you later at the recycling center. You can then place your sorted plastics in large garbage bags (be sure to label them!) or plastic totes or even cardboard boxes. Just be sure you know which is which.

Do your research as to where to take your plastic bottle recycling, too. Whereas Michigan pays 10 cents per bottle and most other bottle bill states pay 5 cents, there are still plenty of places that will pay for your plastic bottle recycling even if you don’t live in a bottle bill state. So call around and be sure to ask how long the price is good, too. Similarly, be sure to check in on the rules and preferences of each recycling center, too; some prefer that plastic bottle recycling includes the lid on, and others prefer lids off.

Finally, consider getting creative with the plastic bottles you can’t recycle for money. You can make planters, for instance, and then sell those planters. Similarly, you can make creative bird feeders or lots of other crafty items, each of which you may be able to sell.

 

Products Made From Recycled Plastic Bottles

But what does recycling plastic bottles become? What products result from plastic bottle recycling?

Quite a few, it turns out. Milk bottles and other tougher plastic bottles and containers are often made into things like plastic patio decking, lawn furniture, picnic tables, playground equipment, recycling bins, and more.

Lighter plastic bottles, such as used for soda, water, and juice, can be recycled into quite a few products, too, including clothing, insulation for clothing and sleeping bags, carpeting, and even more bottles. With roughly 10 bottles, there’s enough plastic fiber to make a soft tee; 14 bottles can make enough insulation for a ski jacket. 63 bottles are enough to make a sweater, and 114 bottles can create enough insulation for a sleeping bag. Given that some estimates are that the average office worker goes through 2.5 bottles each day, that adds up to a lot of recyclable materials quickly!

And the caps on those plastic bottles can also be recycled into new products, including storage containers, reusable shopping bags, yarn, ropes, brooms, garden rakes, car batteries, storage containers, and much, much more.

What Is the Best Way to Recycle Plastic?

Recycling plastic bottles isn’t the only way to recycle plastic, either. Those plastic bags you get pretty much anytime you buy anything? They’re also recyclable, and grocery stores around the country are starting to add collection points where you can recycle those plastic bags.

The best way to recycle plastic in your local community is to investigate which plastics are already being recycled and work to help ensure that more people in your community are recycling plastic bottles and other recyclable plastics. When you feel like you’ve made good headway there, you can start identifying other plastics that your community should be recycling.

For instance, many communities don’t recycle plastic bottle caps, even though a great number of things can be made from them. Similarly, many communities only recycle #1 and #2 plastics, meaning the other 5 types are considered trash.

While plastic types #3-7 are harder to recycle because they are not pure petroleum-based plastics, there are also ways that some of them can be recycled. Do your homework in your local community to determine both what is already recyclable (including plastic bottle recycling) and what are places where the recycling program can change, adapt, and grow.

 

Surprising Things Made of Plastic

Just as you might have been surprised by some of the things that are made with recycled plastic, including plastic bottle recycling in clothing, for instance, there are quite a few places you might not expect to find plastic. Check out these 10 surprising things made of plastic:

  1. Chewing gum. While it may be hard to believe, chewing gum manufacturers are not required to disclose the exact ingredients in their “gum base,” as that’s considered proprietary information. That said, many gum bases include polyethylene (a plastic used in most plastic bottles) and polyisobutylene (a rubber used in tire inner tubes). This wasn’t always the case, but when plastics became readily available, using these synthetic ingredients helped make gum much cheaper to produce.
  2. Clothing. As we discussed previously, many items of clothing are made of recycled plastics. Even clothing that isn’t made from recycled plastics is usually made from synthetic fibers. The problem with this, though, is that every time you wash these clothing items, microplastics shed and end up in our water, unfortunately.
  3. Glitter. Glitter is a microplastic, much like what sheds from your clothing when you wash it.
  4. Disposable coffee cups. Paper coffee cups are lined with plastic, which makes them difficult to recycle. As a result, one of the best ways you can help is by using your own reusable coffee cup.
  5. Drink cans. Those aluminum beer and soda cans? Well, they’re usually lined with a plastic resin to keep the drink from acting as a corrosive on the aluminum. (In fact, an average can of Coca-Cola, for instance, would corrode within three days without that plastic resin liner. Think about that next time you drink a soda!) Those resins are often heavily BPA (bisphenol-A), which we’ll discuss in just a bit.
  6. Lidded glass jars. While the glass jars themselves don’t contain plastic, their lids often do, again courtesy a liner. That liner (usually plastisol, a PVC product) helps create a vacuum seal and resists acidic corrosion from food products, for instance.
  7. Produce stickers. Those little labels on every single piece of produce? Yeah, they’re made of plastic. (You can still help limit your plastic use with produce, however, by taking your own produce bags to the grocery store with you, rather than getting those plastic produce bags each time you shop.)
  8. Tetra Paks. Those cartons that milk, juice, even soups come in? While they might look and feel like waxed cardboard, the truth is that they are a mix of paper, plastic, and aluminum (the most common carton, for instance, is 74% paper, 22% polyethylene, and 4% aluminum), which makes them incredibly difficult to recycle as well.
  9. Tea bags. Most tea bags are heat-sealed using polyethylene, meaning they won’t break down in your compost.
  10. Tin canned foods. Like drink cans, both tin and aluminum food cans are lined with plastic, for similar reasons.

How Many Things Are Made of Plastic

Truthfully? Nearly everything manufactured today includes plastic. In 2015, for instance, 322 million tons of plastics were produced for a wide range of applications, whether plastic bottles, industrial plastics to be used in construction or a transportation industry (automobile frames and parts, ship and train parts, and much, much more).

If you don’t explicitly know that something doesn’t contain plastic, odds are good it does. Just look at our list of surprising uses of plastic above—and know that we could have included dozens more!

Plastic Bottles In the Ocean

Give that thousands of plastic bottles are used every minute in the United States alone, it’s not hard to imagine how plastic bottle waste can quickly add up even if only a minuscule fraction of it ends up in the ocean. Unfortunately, however, the plastic bottles and other plastics that end up in our oceans are more than just a minuscule fraction. In fact, while fish may outnumber plastic particles by weight by a ratio of 5 to 1 right now, it is estimated that by 2050 plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish. The documentary A Plastic Ocean does an especially good job of illustrating this problem.

The truth is that a combination of waste mismanagement and illegal dumping of plastic bottles and other plastics have created a terrible problem in our oceans. Even if the bottles do begin breaking down, they don’t disappear; instead, they become microscopic pollutants. Those microscopic pollutants then get eaten by zooplankton, which gets eaten by fish, which we then eat—we are corrupting our own food chain, courtesy our overreliance on plastic.

Fortunately, there are ways you can help. Practice recycling plastic bottles and try transitioning to materials that are less harmful, such as aluminum or glass, because they are more easily recyclable and break down more easily.

What Is BPA and How Might You Be Exposed to It

BPA stands for bisphenol-A and is an industrial chemical used in making certain plastics and resins, especially polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. In particular, these plastics and resins are often used in food storage containers as a coating to protect from corrosion, for instance.

BPA is problematic in that some research has shown that it can seep into food or beverages from BPA-containing containers when those containers are heated, such as in a microwave. In particular, BPA exposure has shown to have potential negative health effects, including children’s brain function.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that BPA is safe at the very low levels at which it sometimes occurs in food, based on hundreds of studies, but the FDA is also continuing its review of BPA. If you are worried about BPA exposure, consider taking these steps:

  • Use BPA-free products. More and more manufacturers are marketing their BPA-free products as BPA-free, based on consumer interest, so finding BPA-free plastic bottles, for instance, should not be difficult.
  • Use fewer canned foods and beverages. Most canned foods are lined with BPA-containing resins, so if you want to avoid potential BPA consumption, cut back on your use of canned foods and drinks.
  • Avoid heating plastics. The microwave and dishwasher, in particular, may place higher heat pressure on polycarbonate plastics, which the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences say may allow BPA to leach into foods more easily.
  • Use other alternatives. Glass, porcelain, and stainless steel can all be better options for hot foods and liquids.
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