Editor's note: This article has been significantly revised post-publication to correct for factual errors in the original version.*
Most of us do not think much about recycling. We might clean bottles and jars, crush cartons and break down boxes. We might sort these items into their designated bins or bags, but once we lose sight of the recyclables, the rest of the process is an abstraction. Recycling makes us feel good, but few of us know what actually happens to a plastic bottle after we drop it into a bin.
What happens is the bottle enters an elaborate global system within which its plastic is sold, shipped, melted, resold, and shipped again—sometimes zigzagging the globe before becoming a carpet, clothing, or repeating life as a bottle. This process is possible because plastic is a stubborn substance, which resists decomposition. With a presumed life span of over 500 years, it’s safe to say that every plastic bottle you have used exists somewhere on this planet, in some form or another.
In New York City, household recyclables are picked up curbside, once a week by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). After being tossed in the back of the diesel-fueled truck, each load makes its way to New York City’s Material Recovery Facility, or MRF (pronounced “murf”), which is operated by Sims Municipal Recycling, a company owned by Sims Metal Management.**
Although this type of facility is commonly referred to as a recycling plant, it only handles part of the recycling process. Instead, it sorts, recovers, and discards. A MRF sifts through recyclables to recover items that can be resold in the post-consumer (the recycling industry’s term for items thrown away by consumers) commodities markets. In this case, the materials sifted include glass, metal, cartons and some plastics. It discards the rest.
“Typically, 50% of what you put in your recycling bin is never recycled. It's sorted and thrown out,” said Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, a recycling company. This is partly due to user error, a common problem which occurs when people place unrecyclable materials into recycling bins.***
At the MRF, recyclables change hands from the city to the waste world—most often to private-sector companies. While states and cities mandate and market recycling with green symbols and variations of catchy ‘reuse–reduce–recycle’ tag lines, it is not uncommon for them to pay outside companies to handle the actual process. New York City, for instance, pays Sims approximately $70 to $75 per ton to take the recyclables. Sims, in turn, pays the city a percentage of sales based on monthly national rates.
In December of 2013, Sims unveiled a chic new Selldorf Architect-designed, $110-million Sunset Park, Brooklyn facility. New York City contributed $60 million to the new digs, which are large enough to accommodate the annual flow of household recyclables from all five boroughs—more than 250,000 tons.
“This is where recycled items begin their journey,” said Sims’s education coordinator, Eadaoin Quinn during a tour of the plant. “Recycling can be a fairly long process. It’s not like you put it in your bin and suddenly it’s a new thing.”
The first stop on the tour, called the “tipping floor,” is where the DSNY trucks drop off their loads in a football field-sized room filled with about a thousand tons of recyclables.
A giant crane, dwarfed by the mountains of discarded material in the enormous room, picks up the waste, tossing it onto a conveyer belt. “Bags of recyclables come in on trucks and barges and are loaded onto the conveyer belt, then are torn open by a machine that slices each bag open,” Quinn said. “Unfortunately the bags themselves can’t be recycled—they are too dirty, so they will end up in a landfill.” Even recyclable plastic items are difficult to process if they haven’t been cleaned properly—hence, the leaflets calling for us to “rinse our recyclables.” The cleaner a plastic bottle is, the easier it is to reincarnate it as something new.****
From the vast floor, recycling hopefuls move along an intricate automated assembly line of conveyers, tumblers, metal detectors, and even a few human sorters, in order to be categorized by commodity. The conveyor-belt system sorts glass first, within two minutes. Metals are then extracted by magnets or other means. Thick and unruly plastics (#2) such as high-density polyethylene HDPE—a fancy name for your laundry-detergent containers—get compacted into bulky wads of color, then restrained in bales by rope. And finally, used plastic beverage bottles (#1) are aggregated into a stream. From start to finish, a plastic bottle spends fewer than 30 minutes on a Sims conveyer belt. A bottle binned yesterday, quite possibly already here, will be through the recovery system in a day.
Single-use plastic bottles, made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), are loved by MRFs because they are easy to resell. Bottles compress easily into 1,000-pound bales of mostly clear, some green plastic, caps poking out and labels mashed. Valued solely for their molecular characteristics, these items are sold as commodities based on monthly national rates and then loaded onto trucks, barges or trains to continue to the next stop—a recycling facility.
In the United States, there are few facilities that recycle used plastic bottles. Just a few years ago, a used plastic bottle was almost always guaranteed a free trip to China. In 2011, the United States sold 2 million tons of discarded plastic, worth a billion dollars, to China alone. Now those bottles are likely to end up in Riverside, California, at CarbonLite. Intended to create a closed-loop, bottle-to-bottle system here in the U.S., CarbonLite is one of the country’s largest facilities. Opened in 2012, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Governor Jerry Brown, the 220,000-square-foot space recycles more than 2 billion bottles a year.
“There is plastic in everything—in your car, in your home, in every part of your life,” says CarbonLite’s CEO, Leon Farahnik. “Globally, 100 billion pounds of PET are used in a year: 70 billion pounds goes to carpet and clothing; 30 billion pounds goes into packaging.” That’s a lot of plastic. The good news is that PET plastic can be used again and again, which means that the resources that go into them—mainly crude oil and natural gas—need only be recovered once (if it’s recycled). And yet, despite the fact that manufacturing bottles from recycled PET (rPET) uses less energy and less water, it is often more expensive than virgin material, especially when oil prices are low.
“Right now our material is higher priced,” Farahnik said. However companies are increasingly trying to incorporate those recycled materials into their products. Walmart, for example, set a goal in 2014 to increase post-consumer plastics in the products they carry by 3 billion pounds by 2020. When asked why companies currently use post-consumer material in their products considering it’s more expensive, Farahnik said, “They are under a lot of pressure with the environment. Tremendous pressure. All you hear about is these oceans and everybody gets blamed for it.” Over 8 million tons of plastic waste finds it way into the oceans each year, resulting in at least five plastic garbage gyres around the world, and considerable damage to marine life.
Farahnik believes that the success of recycling hinges on government-mandated bottle deposits—or bottle bills as they are sometimes called—the bane of big beverage companies, who lobby hard against this type of legislation in the United States. “Recycling won’t be fully successful unless it is mandated by federal law that every state should have a deposit system,” says Farahnik. In states with financial incentives—there are 10, including California, Maine, and New York, and each state law is different— the consumer is charged an additional price on each recyclable glass or plastic bottle which can be recovered only after the bottle is returned to a designated recycling station. For bottles discarded in regular trash, “scavengers” or “canners” (the people you see picking through trash cans for bottles to redeem for cash) do the recovery work. The incentive of deposits has been shown to work. California has a legislated deposit system and a 65 to 70 percent recycling rate. A state like Texas, with no bottle deposit, recycles less than 5 percent.
Farahnik’s 22-year-old son Jason works as a project manager at CarbonLite and offered a tour of the recycling facility. We started just outside the facility, where bales of bottles are forklifted off trucks, broken up, and dropped onto the conveyer belts inside. The loosened bottles are prewashed to be separated from any trash and debris. Then bottles are sent through laser sorting machines where beams of light detect the difference between clear plastic and green plastic. The machine then zaps the bottles to the correct color conveyer system. Bottles are washed in a hot, soapy gooey mess that heats them just enough so that their labels and caps fall away.
“The bottles are then ground into cornflake-sized pieces, washed again and dried, and heated again to eliminate any contaminants,” Jason says. Recycled plastic bottle flakes (rPET) will be shipped to manufacturers in the U.S., China and beyond, where it will be used to make carpets or polyester fabric—even teddy-bear stuffing.
Making a new bottle, however, is slightly more complicated. The plastic flakes must be sterilized and tested to meet food-grade standards. This means plastic flakes are melted, extruded as ribbons of liquid plastic, and shaped into smooth rice-grain-sized pieces. These tiny pellets will be sold to a manufacturer as raw materials for take-away food containers and, of course, plastic bottles.
Plastic pellets travel from CarbonLite to beverage companies where they’re melted again, and injected into preformed molds, before being stretched and blown into plastic beverage bottles, which are often filled on-site. From here the filled bottles are shipped out to stores—ready to be purchased, again. Only a handful of companies have fully adopted recycled plastic. One of CarbonLite’s customers, Nestlé, started using 100 percent rPET for its Resource-brand natural spring water this year. Another is Naked Juice, a subsidiary of PepsiCo.
PepsiCo purchases almost half of all bottle grade rPET sold in the United States. Its average beverage bottle, including Aquafina-brand water, uses at least 10 percent of rPET.***** Interestingly, Pepsi doesn’t promote any use of post-consumer content on its labels. One reason is they can’t guarantee the exact amount they include in each batch of bottles; the other is consumer indifference. “Consumers don’t seem to really care that much,” said Tim Carey, the senior director of sustainability at PepsiCo. “It will probably never affect their purchasing decision.” Still, the company wants to use more recycled material in each bottle, but is limited by supply. “There isn’t enough rPET available. If there was more on the market we could put more in,” Carey said.
In other words—not enough used plastic bottles in the U.S. are making it into the recycling system.
Carey says, “There is no doubt that the collection rates in beverage containers in bottle-bill states are higher than in a non-bottle-bill states.” Yet for PepsiCo, the current bottle bills aren’t economically feasible to scale across the U.S. because of its large population.
Other countries have gone even further, levying an extended producer responsibility (EPR) on manufacturers of single-use products, in order to share their responsibility. The best example of it is the Green Dot, or Der Grüne Punkt, out of Germany, which is now law in 50 countries around the world. The law requires packaging companies to pay for the environmental cost of their packaging.
EPR’s have not been popular with big beverage companies in the U.S., where well over 240 billion beverage bottles are used each year—110 million are made of PET and 50 billion of which are water bottles. The U.S. recycles only 31 percent of its plastic beverage bottles—the rest ends up in a landfill, or as litter on the ground, or at sea.
Given that plastic survives more than five centuries, it’s possible that the people of the future might conclude that our culture loved this versatile material that we carried everywhere, and made many of the items in our homes out of. They might be astonished that we buried so much of it amidst our trash. “Future populations are going to look at landfills like they are goldmines, full of resources, and wonder what we were all thinking,” Jason said.
* This article has been updated to clarify several facts about the means and outcomes of recycling processes in New York City and elsewhere. We regret the errors.
** This article originally stated that New York City’s MRF was owned by Sims Metal Management.
*** This article originally stated that over 50 percent of what is placed in New York City’s recycling ends up in a landfill. We have attributed this claim to its source and added context to clarify that this is often due to user error.
**** This article originally suggested that dirty bottles are not recycled.
***** This article originally stated that PepsiCo’s average bottle contains 10 percent rPET or less.