What Does It Actually Mean to Recycle?

What Does It Actually Mean to Recycle?


Recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.

One of the crucial steps of waste management is recycling. You might have heard the 4 Rs of recycling, which are reduce, reuse, recycle, and repurpose. If you’re a newcomer to green living, or if you’ve been encouraging friends and family to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, you’ve likely encountered a common question: “What does recycle mean?”

In this guide, we’re answering that central question definitively.

We’ll explore the basics of recycling, describe the recycling process, and explain where you stand in what the EPA calls a “circular economy” of materials.1

Recycling 101

The EPA describes recycling as “The process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.”2

Let’s break that definition down into its key parts. Recycling requires:

  • Contribution – When you’re ready to throw away a recycled material, you have the choice to contribute it to a pool of reusable materials.

  • Collection – If you set aside all of your recyclable materials, someone—typically a municipal agency or a service provider—collects it from you (and every other recycler).

  • Diversion – Instead of throwing your recyclable items into a landfill-bound trash can, you divert them away from the landfill and toward the recycling process.

  • Processing – After the recycling centers or service provider collects recycled content, they must process them in a way that makes them reusable in the manufacturing process.

  • Simply put, the recycling process turns things you can recycle into new items that, theoretically, can be continuously recycled in what the EPA calls a “circular economy” of materials—a system that circulates the same materials for as long as possible.3

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    The History of Recycling

    Americans have been recycling for much longer than expected. Historians have described various instances of recycling over the last two centuries:4

    • In the early to mid-1800s, “rag men” would collect old, worn-out cloth door-to-door—cloth that would be made into industrial rags and, eventually, paper.
    • Garbage pickup began in the late 1800s, and many cities sorted their garbage using conveyor belts (a practice we still use today). Cities sold the reusable trash items to manufacturing and industrial companies, and some even sorted out organic items for use as animal feed.
    • Everyday, citizens collected recyclable material to contribute to World War efforts—things like tin cans, cloth, cooking oils and fats, and even toothpaste tubes.
    • In the 1970s, landfills began overflowing as the trash collection system continued to grow in the US. To prevent this, many cities introduced curbside recycling to encourage everyday citizens to recycle and streamline the sorting process.

    Today’s recycling systems are the result of over two hundred years of savvy conservation efforts among Americans—and recycling systems abroad have even longer histories.

    Does Recycling Actually Work to Help the Planet?

    Yes, recycling actually works. Here’s how:5

  • Recycling saves landfill space – There’s only so much real estate available for garbage. Recycling diverts some waste away from the landfill, conserving our available space for non-recyclable trash.

  • Recycling prevents pollution – Manufacturing creates byproducts—both physical and chemical byproducts and emissions. By reducing the volume of new materials we make, we reduce the volume of byproducts and emissions produced in industrial processes.

  • Recycling saves energy – Creating one ton of copy paper from recycled paper stocks instead of new wood pulp saves approximately 3,000-kilowatt hours of electricity. A ton of soda cans made from recycled aluminum saves about 12,000-kilowatt hours. A ton of plastic containers made from recycled materials saves around 7,200-kilowatt hours.

  • The numbers add up—recycling just makes sense.

    The Recycling Process

    With the basics broken down, let’s get into the nitty-gritty—what does “recycle” mean from a processing standpoint? Here’s a step-by-step explanation of how your trash becomes a recycled product.

    #1 You Contribute Recyclable Material

    The recycling process starts with you. Let’s explore a hypothetical:

    1. You purchase a plastic container of laundry detergent pods from the grocery store.
    2. You use all of the laundry pods, so you’re ready to dispose of the container they came in.
    3. Instead of throwing the container into the garbage with the rest of your non-recyclables, you set it aside for recycling.

    When you toss that container into your curbside recycle bin or take it to your local trash facility, you set off a chain reaction that will eventually produce new, usable material. You are the key to the whole recycling process.

    lady throwing plastic bottle into yellow recycle bin container outdoors

    #2 A Waste Processing Center Initiates the Recycling Process

    After you make the conscious decision to recycle, your municipal garbage pickup service will collect the materials in your bins and deliver them to a local landfill, transfer station, or recycling facility—or you’ll drop off your recyclables to a facility yourself if your neighborhood doesn’t offer trash pickup.

    Once these materials arrive at their processing location, workers at this facility will:6

    1. Sort the recyclable materials into more specific categories (if this hasn’t been done already)
    2. Wash the recyclables—either give them a quick rinse or a more in-depth pre-treatment before processing starts
    3. Begin processing them, or send them to a facility that processes recyclable materials

    What does “processing” look like? It depends upon the material.

    • Plastic is typically shredded into flakes or melted into pellets.7
    • Metals are typically melted for alloy separation and ease of transport.8
    • Aluminum must be shredded before melting
    • Tin cans (which are actually 95% steel) must be “detinned” before melting
    • Copper must be graded before recycling—only high-grade copper is recyclable
    • Paper products undergo a multi-step process:9
    • Paper products are sorted and cleaned first
    • A “pulper” churns paper into pulp using water
    • The pulp is strained and sifted for contaminants
    • The clean pulp is rolled into sheets and dried

    #3 Manufacturers Source Recycled Materials to Make New Items

    Once recyclables are turned into clean, reusable materials, recycling centers and processing facilities ship them to manufacturers, who make new products:

  • Plastic shreds or pellets are melted down and molded into new items
  • Metal sheets are layered, compressed, cut, and otherwise formed into new objects
  • Paper sheets are dyed, cut, folded, and manipulated to form new paper products

  • Let’s return to the laundry detergent pod container hypothetical:

    After your recycling center turns the container into shavings or pellets, those are shipped to a manufacturer, who melts and molds them into a new product—perhaps even another laundry detergent container. Your recycled container could theoretically become (or form a part of) any kind of plastic product.

    #4 You Purchase Items Made from Recycled Materials

    The recycling process doesn’t end when a manufacturer makes a new product out of recycled materials—ideally, the recycling process doesn’t end at all.

    Recycling is one of many methods used to create a circular economy. But, in order for that economy to become circular, consumers must purchase items made from recycled materials, recycle those items, and repeat that process.

    In an ideal world, recycling is a closed loop that infinitely uses the same materials—we’re not there yet, but you can help reach that reality faster by recycling and purchasing products made from recycled materials.

    How does recycling save money? Because it eliminates the creation of other materials, this helps reduce the price of raw materials.

    Recycled fabric

    Your Role in the Recycling System

    Each individual plays a critical role in the (ideally circular) recycling system—if consumers don’t recycle materials, purchase recycled items, and return those recycled items back into the system, the manufacturing process remains reliant (to a degree) upon new materials.

    While this idea might seem far-fetched, experts agree that (for plastics in particular), a closed loop of material production is possible. And, the more people recycle, the faster we can create that circular economy.

    How to Start Recycling

    If you don’t recycle already, it’s easy to start. If you live in a neighborhood with a municipal trash pickup service, you can start recycling by:

    • Contacting your local trash pickup service or recycling center—they can provide bins, which are usually free or low-cost
    • Reading up on recyclable items in your area—every recycling center is different, and they don’t all accept the same materials
    • Sorting out your recyclables and adding them to your bins

    If your neighborhood doesn’t offer curbside trash pickup, you can still participate:

    • Find your nearest landfill, garbage collection center, or transfer station. You may already use this location for your household garbage.
    • Ask if they accept recyclables—they probably do. When you take your trash to the landfill or station, there are likely separate bins that you can use to deposit your recyclables. Take note of which materials they accept.
    • Devise a system for collecting your recyclables and sorting them before you head to the landfill or station. Your local facility may offer free recycling bins, or perhaps you can create your own out of existing trash cans, cloth laundry hampers, or other large containers.

    While it takes a little extra effort to contribute to the recycling effort, you can take pride in the fact that you’re saving energy, supporting the economy, and protecting the planet.

    Reel Paper: Harnessing the Power of Recycled Materials

    Recycling describes a process of turning used materials into new ones—a practice that can save energy, conserve landfill space, and prevent pollution. But, recycling isn’t the only way to live an eco-friendly lifestyle. From buying bulk toilet paper to using refillable products, future-minded consumers also explore new sustainable materials—like bamboo.

    At Reel Paper, we’re doing just that. Single-use paper products are essential to our everyday lives. But, instead of making these must-haves from new tree pulp, we’ve developed alternatives—recycled paper towels and bamboo toilet paper. These products have the potential to revolutionize everything we know about disposable paper products.

    We believe in sustainability without sacrifice. Our soft, sustainable paper is plastic-free, tree-free, and (most importantly) compromise-free. Check out our products, and discover the sustainable future of paper.


    1. US Environmental Protection Agency. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.https://www.epa.gov/recycle
    2. US Environmental Protection Agency. Recycling Basics.https://www.epa.gov/recycle/recycling-basics
    3. US Environmental Protection Agency. What Is a Circular Economy?. https://www.epa.gov/recyclingstrategy/what-circular-economy
    4. History. When Did Americans Start Recycling?. https://www.history.com/news/recycling-history-america
    5. Stanford University. Frequently Asked Questions: The Benefits of Recycling. https://lbre.stanford.edu/pssistanford-recycling/frequently-asked-questions/frequently-asked-questions-benefits-recycling
    6. Recycle Now. How Is Plastic Recycled?. https://www.recyclenow.com/how-to-recycle/how-is-plastic-recycled
    7. Recycle Nation. How Is Metal Recycled?.https://recyclenation.com/2010/12/metal-recycled/
    8. American Forest & Paper Association. Paper Recycling Process. https://www.afandpa.org/priorities/recycling/paper-recycling-process

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