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Trash to Treasure: The Life (Re)Cycle of Common Materials

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As a child, I faced Thursday nights with a dread that can only come from a certain household chore: recycling. Every week, in pain and anguish, I would stomp to the garage and sort the bags of newspapers from the milk cartons from the leftover cans of tomato sauce. Then I would drag my feet up the driveway to release them into their multicolored bins, away into the world, never to be thought of again. At least not until next Thursday.

It wasn’t until years later, while toting my hemp bag around in a San Francisco supermarket, that I wondered about the life cycle of those milk cartons after I painstakingly sorted them to their respective resting places. Where did they go? What was to become of them?

Some sleuthing on the subject led to the list below: three common recyclables, the process in which they’re recycled, and how they’re reincarnated into new products.

The Future Is in Plastics
Mr. McGuire said it best in The Graduate: There’s a great future in plastics. The world around us is teeming with them, even in the most unlikely of places.

Take the typical life cycle of your water bottles. After you place plastics in the recycle bin, they’re picked up and brought to a specialized facilities plant, where they’re sorted by polymer type and color, then compressed into a bale. The bale is then shipped to another processor where it’s broken open, shredded, washed, and dried. From there, the plastic pieces are melted, dyed, filtered for contaminates, and squeezed into spaghetti-like strands. The strands are either spun into fiber or chopped into tiny pellets. Then the raw material is reformed into a new product, based on one of these types of plastic:

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
The most common recycled plastic is PET or PETE, used to make bottles for cleaning products, surfboards, sailboat hulls, industrial paints, and fiber products such as T-shirts, jackets, and carpets. Strange to think that the leftover soda bottle that cooled you down on a hot day may later be used as insulation for your sleeping bag, isn’t it?

High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
HDPE is the most widely used household plastic. Recycled HDPE is used to make plastic lumber, flowerpots, plastic toys, traffic barrier cones, trash cans, detergent bottles, garbage bags, and grocery bags. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the plastic used in flooring, plumbing, shower curtains, house siding, and garden hoses. Though PVC is harder to recycle, it can be processed to make drainage piping, fencing, handrails, and house siding. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is particularly useful for all our child-rearing needs, producing disposable diaper liners and squeeze bottles.

Polypropylene (PP)
Also known as PP, polypropylene is a component in tubes, automotive battery casings, and long underwear. Though not often recycled, there is the potential to create auto parts, batteries, bird feeders, furniture, pails, and golf equipment. I’m still amazed at how my five iron is related to my winter thermals.

Polystyrene Foam
Polystyrene recycling supports the to-go biz. It’s commonly found in coffee cups, plastic cutlery, take-out food packaging, and cafeteria trays.

Do Not Try This at Home
As far as extraordinary uses in plastics go, the trophy may belong to Richie Sowa, who constructed an entire island out of plastic bottles in 1998. Using more than a quarter of a million bottles, he built an island with a two-story house, a solar oven, beaches, and a self-composting toilet. Tied for first place: David de Rothschild built a sixty-foot boat out of plastic bottles called the Plastiki. He and his crew sailed from San Francisco to Sydney in four months (March 20–July 26, 2010). The hull alone was constructed from 12,500 bottles, or about the same number of bottles that are consumed every 8.3 seconds in the United States.

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Paper Covers Everything
After paper is collected, it’s transferred to a recycling center, or Material Recovery Facility (MRF), where it’s sorted into its different grades, and contaminants such as trash, glass, plastics, and metals are removed. Once the recovered paper is properly sorted and free of contaminants like plastic, it’s compacted into large bales. From there, it’s transported to a paper mill where the recycling process begins.

To begin the papermaking process using recovered fiber, the fiber is shredded and mixed with water to make a pulp. The pulp is washed, refined, and cleaned, then turned to slush in a beater. From there, the paper is remade.

Seven Lives to Live
The interesting thing about the repurposing of paper is that, like a fine wine, it betters with age. Each time paper is recycled, the fiber length decreases, which impacts its strength. It’s estimated that paper has approximately seven generations, meaning it can be recycled up to seven times.

Today approximately 80 percent of the nation’s paper mills use some recovered fiber in the production of new paper and paperboard products.

Common (and Not-So-Common) Uses
As you may have guessed, greeting cards, copier/printer paper, toilet paper, and tissues are all common products of the recycling process. In fact, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), if every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin-fiber toilet paper (five hundred sheets) with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 423,900 trees.

What you might not expect from recycling your Sunday newspaper? A product that eventually ends up back in good ole Mother Earth?six feet under, to be exact. Recycled paper can also be used to make the EcoPod, an environmentally friendly coffin. (Perhaps we should just plan for reusable napkins for the moment.)

While composting seems to be a more recent buzzword in green living, its roots actually trace back to the early Roman era of the writings of Pliny the Elder. Traditionally, composting was to pile organic materials and let them stand for about a year, or until the next planting season, at which time the materials would be ready for soil application. This was advantageous because it obviously required little work from the composter. Modern research argued against this method because of the space taken up for an entire year, the risk of leached nutrients due to rainfall, and disease-producing organisms, like weed seeds and insects, being inadequately controlled.

How It Works
Eggshells, leftover fruits and veggies, coffee grinds, yard trimmings?all are eligible for composting. In fact, in cities like San Francisco, composting is required. It reduces trash by up to 30 percent and provides rich, nutritious soil for your plants and your own diet after you eat them.

Fermentation occurs best with the proper mixture of water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, so that microorganisms are allowed to break down the organic matter. Microorganisms are absolutely necessary for the composting process, and without them, organic matter in your compost heap cannot undergo the composting process. Earthworms are also essential to certain methods of composting, ingesting partly composted material as well as continually re-creating aeration and drainage tunnels as they move through the material. Unlike the early Roman era, most composting methods do not take a full year to complete; many now advocate that compost can be made in two to three weeks.

The Secret Ingredient?
Humans excrete valuable amounts of plant nutrients, such as phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen, in?you guessed it?urine. Urine (from a healthy human being) can be used directly as fertilizer or can be put into compost. It usually increases temperatures, and therefore increases compost’s ability to destroy pathogens and unwanted seeds. Just a little food for thought.

Coming Full Circle
In some ways, recycling is reminiscent of smoking. People know they shouldn’t light up; they realize it’s bad for them, and yet, they do it anyway. The same goes for repurposing. We know we should, we realize it’s good for the planet, and yet, how many times have we shrugged and just thrown our soda bottle into the trash? I’m guilty myself. But the fact remains: recycling really does make the world go ’round.

I’d like to think that, as a kid, if I’d known then about the bountiful world of recycled plastics and paper swirling around me, I’d have been a less-reluctant participant in those recycling efforts every Thursday night. Now I think of all the lives our plastics and papers have lived since then.


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