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Where does the can go after you throw it in the bin?

3 min read


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Each day, families in residential neighborhoods, condo complexes and apartment communities around the country fill up bins and buckets with their used plastic bottles, old newspapers and empty soda cans. In the not-so-distant past, the exercise meant splitting the load into separate receptacles for each material, a time-consuming task that often deterred consumers from taking the time and trouble to recycle.

Fortunately, the introduction of single-stream recycling has made it easier — the method lets customers throw everything into a single container to be sorted out later by the recycling company. Industry leader Waste Management uses a variety of technology and tools to operate single-stream recycling centers, such as the Philadelphia facility featured in this video.

Waste Management, North America’s largest residential recycler, estimates that single-stream recycling encourages more consumers to recycle, boosting rates by an average of 30%, according to the company’s 2010 Sustainability Report, and the practice has led to about 50% higher volume of materials recovered, said public affairs Director Richard Abramowitz. The company, which handles about 8.5 million tons of recyclables annually and has a goal of increasing that to more than 20 million tons by 2020, says single-stream not only boosts levels of recycling, it also reduces collection costs and emissions.

Single-stream recycling sends truckloads of commingled glass, plastic, paper and metal through a multi-step separation process that’s dependent on both people and machines to make sure the materials are separated properly. In the Philadelphia facility, the video shows how plastics and paper are sorted out first, followed by glass and finally aluminum and steel cans. Last year, the company recycled about 38,000 tons of aluminum, including cans and scrap, Abramowitz said.

After separating the refuse, recyclers gather the materials into giant bales and sell them to companies that will turn the refuse into something new. In the case of aluminum, that typically means turning it back into giant sheets of metal that will become cans again, as this short video from RecycleNow shows. About 75% of all aluminum produced is still in use in some fashion, according to research from aluminum sheet producer Novelis. While most of it goes to hold food and beverages, aluminum has also become an integral part of producing cars, consumer electronics and even buildings, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In pure dollar values, aluminum cans are the most valuable materials in the stream, according to statistics from the Can Manufacturers Institute. Aluminum cans represent about 20% of the total materials collected but 70% of the value, and the revenue realized by the sale of recycled aluminum typically offsets the cost of recycling less valuable commodities. Although price fluctuations may mean that smaller recycling companies would need to stockpile some materials, aluminum is in consistently high demand and the bales rarely sit at the sites for very long, Abramowitz said.

So, that’s what happens to your recycling after it’s picked up. Next month, we’ll take a look at where it goes when it leaves the recycling center.