How Plastic Recycling Works

How Plastic Recycling Works
article writer
by Keith McCauley
September 8, 2020, Updated October 28, 2022

Throughout history we’ve used a lot of different types of containers. We even have an infographic that shows a lot of them. The most recent human invention of plastic offers better containment for more items than just about anything we used before. But the best part of plastics is their lifecycle. Plastics can be reused and recycled almost indefinitely. I resolved that I just had to see this for myself. So I decided to visit a local plastics recycling center.

Journey to the center (that recycles stuff)

I'll admit I was excited to see the process of recycling. My first thought was to wait in my blue recycling bin until the recycling truck came by my house. This way I would get a free lift to the center and get a firsthand perspective of recycling from the bottle's point of view. While the idea of being lifted 10 feet in the air and tossed into a pile of paper, plastic, and metal sounds incredibly fun, the real damper was the idea of being crushed by the truck's compactor. At this point in my life I still have a healthy sense of self-preservation, so I reluctantly decided to find a different route to the recycling center.


Once I arrived at the center, the contents of the truck are dumped and then loaded into a hopper. The recyclables in the hopper are sorted as they are dumped onto a conveyor of many rubber wheels. While it looked like it might be an amazing machine to treat back pain, these wheels sort recyclable items by pushing the paper and cardboard along and letting the plastics and metals fall through to another line below. The metal and plastic line is then run through a powerful electro magnet that picks up the metals and lets the plastic continue on. Now that there are three lines, each one goes through a final sort by hand. Several workers will watch the lines and sort out any items that don't belong. Each of these lines then goes to their respective bailers.

The Bailer

After enough recyclable materials have been collected, they are put into a bailing machine and compressed into tight standard-sized bails. This is the point in the tour where you get told ˜no' a lot. For example; you can't touch the buttons on the bailer, you can't play in the bailer, and you can't ride the bails as they come out. You can't drive the forklift. You can't race with the forklifts. You can't try and pick people up by their belts with the forklift. But despite these rules preventing anyone from having any fun, the bails are then loaded by forklift onto trucks and hauled away to be processed at a refinery. It's at these refineries that the bails are processed to become a recycled material.


The next part I couldn’t see for myself because the closest refinery is too far away. Don't worry because I still know what happens next. For plastics, processing consists of breaking the bails apart and washing the plastic. After being cleaned, it's dried and shredded. After being shredded the plastic is cleaned again and put into a water tank. This specialized tank helps sort the various types of plastics as some (like PET) float while others (like PP) will sink. After the type of plastic has been sorted they are heated and formed into resin pellets, ready to become new bottles, jars, lids, and any other kind of container.


There are people who see plastic as not being environmentally friendly. When put into the environment, they're right; it's not the best place for it. But, when recycled, plastic has a virtually limitless lifespan! Watching the process is actually quite exciting as you see something that goes from useless to reusable. And in life isn’t that what it's all about? Becoming new again, reinventing ourselves and changing for the better? Plastic deserves that same chance, to be remolded into something else.