Pile of flattened cardboard boxes for recycling (with logo overlay)

How Does Recycling Work?

Recycling isn’t as simple as placing bottles and plastics in your recycle bin. Learn how recycling works, and what you may or may not be able to recycle.

While recycling isn’t exactly No Waste, it’s still a better option than having waste go to the landfill. At least, when something is recycled, it can be given a new life. Most of the time. 

The recycling program isn’t quite as simple as it seems. To the average homeowner, all we know is that many things can be recycled. Throw them in the recycle bin and set it at the curb on a specific day. The recycling trucks pick it up and whisk it away. 

But, what happens after that? Where does all that mixed recycling go? Do you even know if everything you put in the bin is truly recyclable? 

Originally Published On: October 18, 2018

Last Updated On: April 9, 2020

Recycling Starts at Home

The first step in the recycling process starts at your home. Well, I guess you could say it starts at the store because it’s better to buy foods without packaging so there is no waste. But, that isn’t always possible. 

In most communities, your Waste Management Company will provide you with a recycling bin. If you don’t have one, give them a call and see what it takes to get one delivered. When we moved into our current house, I had to fill in a form online and one was left at my house within the next week.

Every company is different in the types of materials that they can accept for your curbside recycling. It’s important to know what can and can’t be put in your curbside bin. 

Some recycling bins are separated by the type of material, while others are one big bin that gets filled and dumped into the truck making the pickups. When it’s all in one, that usually means the recycle is being transported to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where it is sorted both manually and by machines. 

Materials Recovery Facility

What is it?

The Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) is the name given to the recycling location. These large facilities are where recycling items are sorted, compressed, baled, stored, and shipped out of to make new products. 

How Does The MRF Work?

MRFs are all set up a little differently, but still have the same basic functions. The recycled materials are separated by both machines and people working in the factory. Most will have any large items sorted by hand. Then there are many different conveyor belts, magnetized drums, rollers, and other machines that help separate paper from metals from plastic, etc. 

Once everything is separated, the materials are compressed and formed into large bales of each item. Once the bales have been made, the MRF will then transport the materials to recycling facilities or store them if needed. 

What’s Next?

After recyclable materials leave the MRF, they are transported to one of many facilities that will do the recycling. Some of these are stateside, others are abroad. 


Glass is one of the easiest things to be recycled. It can be used over and over again without losing it’s usability. The glass is usually sorted by colors then crushed and melted down to be formed again. 


Aluminum and steel can both be recycled almost indefinitely like glass. It is broken down and shredded to be mixed with new raw materials to make new metals.


Paper products are made of fibers. Each time the paper is recycled, the fibers get smaller and thinner. When paper is recycled, it is always down-cycled into something less substantial. Eventually, it gets to the point that it can’t be recycled into anything else usable.


Plastic is recycled based on it’s number. The plastics range from 1-7 and the number indicates the material it’s made from. 


Polyethylene Terephthalate: soda bottles, water bottles, juice containers, etc.

Plastic #1 is one of the most common plastics. It is designed for single-use only and should not be used over and over by refilling because it can build bacteria and leach plastic particles into whatever is inside the container. 


High-Density Polyethylene: milk jugs, shampoo bottles, cleaning containers, detergent containers, etc.

Plastic #2 is also a very common plastic, but this is much more sturdy than the #1 plastic containers. HDPE can be recycled into many other sturdy items such as benches and truck bed liners. HDPE is one of the safest forms of plastic and is generally easy to recycle.

PVC #3

Polyvinyl Chloride: food packaging such as fruit containers, bubble wrap, plastic wrap, kid and pet toys, etc.

PVC is a flexible material but it is also one of the most toxic when it isn’t used properly. It leaches a lot of chemicals and shouldn’t be used for food past it’s lifecycle. Because of these toxins, it’s difficult to recycle. 


Low-Density Polyethylene: shopping bags, shrink wrap, bread bags, etc. 

Plastic #4 are a more flimsy material often used for bags because of how easy it is to change shape. These products can be recycled, but it’s not always easy. Many communities don’t collect these at the curbside, but most grocery stores have collection bins. 

PP #5

Polypropylene: furniture, luggage, car parts, cereal liners, disposable diapers, buckets, etc. 

Plastic #5 is a more rigid plastic that is usually very heat-resistant and can be a barrier for moisture, grease, and chemicals. PP is considered safe for reuse and can be recycled into brooms, bins, and landscaping borders among other things. It’s not widely accepted at the curb but is becoming easier to recycle as more companies start to take it. 

PS #6

Polystyrene: toys, costume jewelry, trays, cd cases, plastic cutlery, packing peanuts, etc. 

Polystyrene is commonly known as styrofoam. It is an inexpensive and light-weight plastic that can be easily formed into many shapes. PS is harmful to the environment because it breaks up so easily, meaning tiny pieces get scattered all around the environment. Most curbside recycling won’t accept PS and there isn’t much of a market for it. PS leaches possible carcinogens, especially when heated, so should be avoided for anything to be consumed.


Other (BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN): acrylic, nylon, fiberglass, etc.

Plastic #7 was designed as a catch-all designation for anything that doesn’t fit the above six categories. Because of this, it’s difficult to say if the items can be recycled since they can be any number of materials. Even though these plastics are often used for baby bottles and sippy cups, the chances of them leaking harmful chemicals are high so they should be avoided around food and drinks.

Your Turn

Now that you have an idea of how recycling works, the next step is to find out what you can and can’t recycle at your curbside pickup. Look at your waste management company’s website or send them an email or give them a call. 

After you know what can be accepted, make sure you are recycling as much as possible. Of course, cutting out the amount of waste (even recyclable waste) is ideal, but that can’t always happen. When you have to use these items, try to get the ones that can be recycled easier, such as glass and metal over plastic and paper/cardboard.

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22 thoughts on “How Does Recycling Work?”

  1. WE move A LOT. I’m always so surprised at the different recycling programs all across the country. In New York there wasn’t a recycling pick up at all. Then in Washington they took recycling so seriously that they wouldn’t take your trash if they saw recyclables in it.

  2. I don’t have curbside recycling pick-up, so we certainly don’t recycle as much as we could. I try to recycle big things like plastic bottles and cardboard. I never knew about the different plastic designations!

  3. I live in a village where recycling is the law. We take it seriously and have special pick up days with trucks that collect our sorted and categorized items.

  4. I prefer to recycle but can’t find anywhere around here that accepts products for recycling. They don’t even offer recycle trash cans here. I have so much to contribute if only I know how to get started and where.

  5. I try to keep separate the recycling from the other items that I throw away. Although I will be honest and say I had no clue about all of the different types of plastics there are out there. I will have to check more closely for that which recycles and that which does not.

  6. This is fascinating, especially the breakdown of all the plastics! We used to recycle a lot locally, but our county recently cut way back on what they will accept for recycling because of the fact that (due to trade tensions) much of the overseas market for our recyclables has collapsed, so it is no longer even break-even for them to recycle them. They reassured us not to worry, all that extra stuff going into our trash cans would be incinerated to make energy, but I’m not super crazy at the thought of all these things being burned instead…

  7. This is simply amazing. I must share that post with the girls. I did not know this information, Stephanie. Thanks for educating me.

  8. I think I said this before but Japan divides their trash more than 8 ways. I have to take out the trash each day as there is a different day to put out different trash.

  9. Recycling is really important for the environment and for us, I’m glad you are raising awareness and sharing such kind of important information related to recycling. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Hhhhmmmm….this is quite a lot to think about and very important, too. Actually, I imagined the entire cycle of recycling was so much easier than this. The sorting process alone must be hectic!

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