Some tips and curiosities about the recycling process

Recycling involves subjecting a used material to a process that will allow that material to be reused. It is part of a circular transformation whereby waste is converted into raw material to manufacture new products. However, not all products are recyclable, or can be recycled infinitely. In this post I will explain, in a summarized way, the most interesting characteristics and requirements needed for the recycling of those products that we most commonly use:

♺ Paper: Although the paper recycling process has improved considerably in recent years, due to the characteristics of the cellulose fiber of the plants, the paper cannot be recycled infinitely. The paper can resist, approximately, a maximum of six recycled. That is why we should reduce our use of paper as much as possible.

♺ Glass: Unlike paper, glass can be recycled infinitely without losing its properties. The biggest problem with glass is color. A green bottle cannot be recycled to create a transparent bottle. Separating glass by colors before taking them for recycling, would help to improve the recycling process. In this post I talk a little more about the glass and its characteristics .

♺ Metals: similar to glass, metals such as lead or aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. The purity of the metal will be what determines the subsequent use of the metal.

♺ Organic: although separating food and organic products for later composting is not considered recycling, by doing so, we allow waste to enter a reuse cycle. The compost produced will be used to fertilize crop fields and, in a way, it will return to us in the form of fruits and vegetables.

♺ Plásticos: Despite what many believe about plastic, it cannot be recycled infinitely. For example, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) , one of the most common plastics and the material from which most water bottles and soft drinks are made, can only be recycled about 4 or 5 times. In order to recycle this plastic, it must be washed, crushed and melted. As with paper, virgin material is sometimes added so that it can be recycled. Depending on how many times it has been recycled, the use of recycled plastic changes. What began as a plastic bottle can end up as a street bench.

In most plastic products, there is a triangle symbol with a number from 1 to 7 inside it (see image below). This is the Möbius triangle, an universal recycling symbol, which is used to identify the type of plastic that was used to make the product itself.

  • Number 1. PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and Number 2, HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) can be recycled more easily than other types of plastics.
  • Number 3, PVC (Vinyl or Polyvinyl Chloride) is more difficult to recycle, and is usually avoid in the food industry because of its capacity to release toxins.
  • Number 4, LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) is recyclable and is widely used to create bags.
  • Number 5, PP (Polypropylene), due to its heat resistance, it is used for elements that are going to be microwaved. Together with number 1, they are the easiest types os plastic to recycle.
  • Number 6, PS (Polystyrene), Due to its ability to release toxins, it is not recommended to be used in the food industry, however, it is very commonly found in cutlery and crockery and even to make trays that will be used for fruits and vegetables in supermarkets. It is a very difficult material to recycle.
  • The number 7 is made up of all the other plastic types that do not fit in the 6 previous groups. In addition, more and more types of plastics are grouped in this category, as the previous six are becoming somewhat obsolete due to the use of new materials. With so many different types of plastic, the number 7 cannot be recycled.

For safety, numbers 2, 3, 5 and 6 cannot be recycled to create food containers, and number 1 (at least in Spain) can only be used to recreate water bottles if each new bottle contains a minimum of 50% non-recycled plastic. This means that the supermarket packaging comes mostly from new, non-recycled plastic.

Also, most products are made up of many different materials, which makes recycling costly or virtually impossible. For example, Juice containers, are made of 75% cardboard, 20% plastic and 5% aluminum. In most cases, some of these materials will not be recycled, but incinerated.

To conclude, I want to remind you that recycling is very important, but it is not the solution. Despite the improvements in the recycling processes, there are still many flaws and obstacles to recycling – some of them we have already mentioned-. We also have to remember that although the recycling process allows reducing the extraction of certain materials and the exploitation of natural areas, it consumes energy and resources. Thus, recycling should be the last step after reducing our consumption and reusing our products.

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