The Recycling Journey of a Plastic Bottle

What happens to all those plastic bottles you recycle?
When you want to help the environment by giving used plastics another life, your first step is tossing it in the recycling bin. But have you ever wondered what happens next to transform your plastics into new packaging, patio chairs, or car bumpers? Here’s how the recycling process works for one of the most commonly recycled plastics: the beverage bottle.

Bottle background

Whether it’s water, milk, juice, or a sports drink, chances are the bottle is made with polyethylene (PE #2) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET #1) plastic. Fortunately, nearly all Americans have ready access to plastic bottle recycling. And remember! Put the caps back on the bottles before recycling. Caps are made with another valuable plastic that recyclers want (more below).

Bale it and break it

Once collected, used plastic bottles are sorted, separated, and compressed into bales, each weighing up to 1,200 pounds and containing more than 7,200 bottles, which makes them more economical to ship. These pre-sorted bales are delivered to a facility that tears them apart using an aptly named machine: bale breaker. A magnet then removes certain metal pieces that may have mistakenly come along for the ride.

Scrub-a-dub

The bottles are run through a washing machine, sort of a gigantic version of the one you use at home. The soapy water removes the labels, dirt and, debris. Note: It’s best to completely empty your bottles at home—it makes the recycling process a lot more efficient.

Chop chop

Since bottle caps are typically made with polypropylene (PP, #5) plastic, the varying types of plastic must be separated. Don’t worry, there are not rows of workers continuously unscrewing caps from bottles—there’s a much more efficient method. For example, the PET bottles and their caps are chopped into small flakes and placed in a large tank of water. Since PET and polypropylene have different densities, the bottle flakes sink in water while the cap flakes float, which separates them for recycling.

Gooey spaghetti

Remember that soft clay “spaghetti” press you played with as a kid? That’s sort of like the next stage of the recycling process, in which the dried plastic flakes are heated into a gooey liquid and “extruded” into long, tubular strands. The strands are cooled and hardened in water, chopped into pellets the size of split peas, and shipped to companies that make a variety of new recycled plastic products.

Cool new stuff

What are some of the unexpected possibilities for your everyday plastic bottles? They can be recycled into durable backyard decks, playground equipment, carpeting, or new bottles. And your caps can become tough kitchen bowls and cutting boards, car battery cases, toothbrushes, and storage bins.

Eco-fashion

Did you know that everyday PET plastic bottles can be recycled into soft, comfortable fabric for clothing or upholstery? If that’s the plan, the recycled pellets will be heated and spun into a very fine, soft thread (fiber). This thread then can be woven into versatile fabrics that you’d never guess were made from your old plastic sports drink bottle.

The demand for recycled plastics is growing—so keep recycling! Americans recycled more than 6 billion pounds of plastic in 2014. Do your part to help the environment by recycling everything you can—and encouraging your friends and family to do the same.