What Actually Happens When You Recycle

I can’t tell you how often I’ve peered into the recycling bin with a questionable item in hand, likely made from a complicated blend of materials that left me hesitant yet hopeful, and then dropped it in with a shrug. This is called “wishcycling,” and it refers to the act of wrongly putting a material into curbside bins with the hope that it will be recycled. My go-to attitude was: Let them figure it out. That’s their job. But in these days of awakening one’s self to better habits and spreading the light, wherever we find it, a nagging discomfort lurked. 

So I began to investigate. What actually happens to this stuff? And what could I do to maximize my positive contribution? What I found amid the tangles of a sometimes complicated industry was simple in essence. It isn’t their job. It’s mine, and it’s yours. The onus to understand and ease the processes we take part in is ours. For the outdoor gearheads among us, we can start with the packaging our toys come in. 

First, recycling in the U.S. is not totally broken, as has been claimed in recent years. The good news is that while it is ailing, it’s not wrecked. China, once the dumping ground for nearly half of the world’s recycling waste, threw a wrench in the industry’s spokes when its “National Sword” policy banned imports of most plastics and other recyclable materials two years ago. But that decision ultimately spurred domestic innovation and funding toward initiatives like refurbished paper mills and plastics-recovery facilities. Recycling is an evolving industry, and we must learn how to evolve our behavior alongside it.

I decided to see what work was required on my end and what happened to materials after they left my bin. To do this, I chose an ordinary gear purchase and then tracked its discarded packaging through the recycling process from my house in Santa Fe. I opted for a Wawona 6 tent from the North Face. The journey that follows reflects the most common path through the system, though its details differ from region to region. It’s a simplified picture of a system driven both by technological and economic complexity.


My tent arrives simply, with minimal packaging: one large cardboard box, a flat piece of corrugated cardboard liner inside, and soft plastic encasing the tent itself, called case wrap. Inside the wrap, the only other disposable materials are the tag and a one-page instruction manual made of mixed paper. Their journey? To be reborn into new material without getting lost to the landfill along the way.

I check my city’s local recycling program (done easily via a Google search) for specifics on which materials the facilities accept. Then I prepare them the best I can by discarding any attached materials that either can’t be recycled or would complicate the process. Removing the tape and labels from the cardboard box isn’t necessary—the tape will eventually separate at the paper mill during pulping and be skimmed off—but doing so puts less waste burden on the facilities, so I do it and throw them away. I cut and flatten the cardboard box and put it in my recycling bin with my other recyclable items, since Santa Fe has one mixed, single-stream bin for its approved materials, which excludes glass and organics (Santa Fe residents have to transport glass to recycling centers themselves because of the cost of transport). The other panel of cardboard and the mixed paper go in the bin as is. I move the bin to the end of my driveway as usual, ready for pickup. Santa Fe accepts all plastic containers, though most areas only take number-one and number-two plastics. (Check the bottom of the object for the plastic type, and cross-reference that with what your municipality accepts. Number-one plastic is thin and clear, as found in disposable water bottles, while number two is thicker, like detergent containers and milk jugs.) Soft, flexible plastics like case wrap should never go in curbside bins, for reasons we’ll come back to, so I leave it out.

My local trash service also collects my recycling. Cardboard and paper tumble into a different segment of the truck than glass and aluminum. Because Santa Fe operates on a “hub and spoke” system, in which smaller municipalities funnel materials to a central hub, the cardboard and paper rumble across town to the Buckman Road Recycling and Transfer Station. Here they’re loaded onto bigger trucks alongside plastics and transferred to Albuquerque’s materials-recovery facility (MRF), Friedman Recycling. 


Friedman, a single-stream facility that moves 30 tons of material per hour, sorts everything by size and material robotically, like many modern MRFs. The truck dumps the cardboard and paper onto the tipping floor, from which a loader operator pushes them into the metering bin. The bin feeds them into a conveyer, carried at speed to the presort station, where human hands give a first quick pass to extract problematic objects, like plastic bags, PVC, and greasy pizza boxes. Both cardboard and paper make it through, still together and surrounded by assorted plastics and newspaper. Even a few covert plastic bags sneak in unseen. Too late to worry about that now, though it will cause problems later. Onward.

The pieces carry on to the first disc screen, a vertically rotating maw of formidable teeth spaced ten inches apart. Cardboard surfs over the screen, and paper, with a final breezy wave, falls to a separate debris roll screen—a gauntlet of horizontal rollers that further sort materials by size. Plastics ride along beside the paper. A single plastic bag wraps lazily around the roll screen’s rotating steel arms, but paper bounces over the two-inch gaps, shot with air puffs. Glass breaks all around it and slips through the gaps along with other smaller, heavier items. Every passing second leaves paper increasingly alone with its compatriots.

The paper then approaches yet another sorter screen with plastic containers. The screen’s angled, gnashing discs grab newspaper and fling it upward and away. Paper and the last of the plastic containers bopping around it fall through the screen and onto another conveyer. Cardboard and paper now sit in their respective holding containers to wait for the fibers baler. They are exactly where they need to be. Each material is fed into the baler separately, which compacts and wraps them into 1,500-pound bales that are loaded into trailers that will truck them to the nearest paper mill.

Now the whirring sound of the sorters’ spinning maws ceases. The MRF shuts down for two hours while workers tie into harnesses to climb along the discs and hand-cut each of the plastic bags that wishcyclers like my former self sent into the facility where they gunk up the process. The workers toss them unceremoniously. It costs the facility more money to transport the bags to the landfill along with other nonrecyclables, rendering the process more expensive and laborious. It’s up to us to form better habits so our communities can afford to implement ever more efficient recycling programs.

Meanwhile, the case wrap has another, better fate in store. Its kind are too often dismissed as trash or else doomed to burden MRFs by the nation’s misguided wishcyclers. But I’d checked that it would be accepted, along with other plastic bags, at several grocery store drop-off locations around town. While traditional MRFs can’t handle flexible plastic, most of it is recyclable. Designating a plastic grocery bag, for example, as single use is a function of consumer behavior and market demands. If you use a bag once and toss it, as most of us do, it’s single use. While plastic bags are reusable, case wrap is less so. I take mine to a bin at Sprouts and bid it farewell. A recycler picks it up and ships it to a closed-loop facility—where materials are recycled back into the same product—designed to handle plastic retail bags and other film plastics.

The case wrap is trucked to such a facility’s loading dock, and soon it scoots down a conveyor belt where workers remove contaminants by hand. Down the line, it’s jostled through float tanks and magnets, where some of its neighbors, including a stray bowling ball, are plucked out as waste and separated. It’s chopped to smaller sizes and sent through a series of extrusion processes that will melt and scrub it of grime.

The plastic formerly known as case wrap is now in the form of goop encased in tubes. It hardens with cool, recirculated water and is chopped into small pellets. Because this is a closed-loop system, it will become another plastic bag—or parts of many—in the manufacturing plant next door. There it’s dumped into a heated vat that melts the pellets back into a liquid state, then siphoned up a tube where it solidifies, stretches flat, and winds onto a large spool of sheeting to be cut into recycled bags. 


Before long, the former case wrap, which once held a tent, will carry broccoli, bulk cashews, and a jar of local green chile mustard, because someone forgot their cloth bag. The cardboard was pulped into sheets of fiber, sold to a manufacturer, and eventually remade as a cereal box. Paper, it transpired, was also pulped and has been reincarnated as a paper-towel tube.

For materials that make it through the system even once (35 percent in 2017), this is too often the end of life. An individual material that’s recycled two or three times is remarkable, but plastics can generally go through the system ten times before losing some of their properties, and cardboard can cycle around five or six times, as long as we consumers do our part. Unfortunately, that’s rare.

As gearheads, our responsibilities are clear: Buy only what you need, and use it well. Seek products from companies that opt for minimal, recyclable packaging. Let them know what you think, because you’re powerful. Reuse what you can as often as possible, and when you’ve given it a good life, don’t merely wish it well. Recycle intelligently.