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How does recycling work

Recycling may have seemed like a noble act 30 years ago, but today it's a necessity. With the rising issue of waste and climate change, higher standards of recycling are more important than ever. 

But the fact of that matter is that most Americans, and much of the world for that matter, probably have no clue how recycling works. 

The United States alone produces over 87 million tons of waste per year. But where does it all go and how much of it is actually recyclable? 

If you've ever wondered, ''How does recycling work?'' and ''Where does all my waste actually go?'' find out here, in this blog... 

The Status of Recycling in the United States 

Over the past four decades, recycling has been a lucrative business in the United States. This is because recycled waste has long been seen as valuable and in high demand across the globe. 

Historically, the U.S. has sold most of its recycled waste to China, but that could be no longer be an option in the near future. 

New restrictions made by the Chinese government stipulate that U.S. recycled waste must reduce its rate of contamination. That is, recycled waste needs to be ''cleaner'' in order to process it. 

Contamination of recyclable products is a human issue. Most people aren't going to go to the trouble of scraping bits of food off their waste before they chuck it into recycling. And herein lies the United States' biggest issue with recycling.

At present, contamination levels within the U.S. sit at 25%. This means that one out of four items in recycling bins cannot be recycled.

China has stipulated that new contamination levels need to be at 0.3%. In a nutshell, this means that they will no longer accept recycled waste from U.S. shores unless it's squeaky clean. 

The harsh reality is that many Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) that don't put emphasis on recycling policies could face major profit losses. 

With this in mind, here's how the process of recycling works and what you can keep in mind next time you separate your own trash! 

How Does Recycling Work: The Process Explained

What's most important to understand is that recycling is a business and a major part of U.S. industry. 

The first step in the recycling process is the sorting and separation of waste by a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Here, machines separate all the waste, which is then processed at another facility, depending on the type of material.  

The initial recycling process includes three major steps:  

Step 1

MRF employees collect all blue recycling bins and empty them out a local MRF. From here, advanced technology views and sorts the waste according to the different types of materials. 

Step 2 

After this, a large drum tumbles and separates the waste, sifting out all fine materials such as dust, soil, food waste, and other organic matter. These are generally known as contaminants. The contaminants are then converted into a fuel product called RDF. 

Step 3 

From here, specialized optic technology scans all 2D and 3D materials and classes the different types of materials. 

After the machine has sorted the 2D materials, workers manually sift through the waste to ensure all material is contaminant free. 

The Process of Materials Recycling 

An MRF will separate waste into five major categories for individual materials recycling. From here, the materials are sent off to different plants to be processed i.e. a paper mill or a glass or steel treatment plant. 

The five materials categories include:  

1. Paper 

A machine sorts through all paper-based products. They are then sent off to a paper mill and processed into reusable paper. Cardboard items also count as paper products. 

Think things like your cereal box, milk carton, vegetable packaging, paper shopping bags etc. 

2. Steel 

Steel is relatively easy to recycle, believe it or not. A steel product is classed as a 3D material and is separated from waste piles with a large magnet. This magnet helps to remove all ferrous, or magnetic, materials. 

Steel waste is then sorted, crushed and melted down. It is then mixed with new steel to refashion new steel products. 

3. Glass 

During the separation process, a large fan lifts lighter items, such as plastic and aluminum, while heavier materials drop down to a conveyor belt.

These heavier items include glass which is then crushed to a size of 5cm, then sorted by color. These three primary colors include green, brown and clear glass.

Why are these glass colors important? Because they are permanent on glass and can affect the rate at which the material degrades over time. 

4. Aluminum

Nope, aluminum is not classed as a form of steel because it's not magnetic. During the separation process, a spinning drum creates a magnetic field which works to repel aluminum, while plastics continue along the conveyor. 

Aluminum is also relatively simple to recycle. A large machine shreds sheets of aluminum and melts it down to create fresh new sheets.

5. Plastic

After all the waste is separated, what's left behind is plastic. Plastic generally forms a large majority of recycled waste. 

The plastics are then separated into six different categories, assigned by the different chemicals in each type of plastic product. Some plastics are easier to recycle than others, whereas some cannot be recycled at all- such as Styrofoam.

More modern recycling plants use infrared sensors to separate plastics. 

Non-Recyclable Materials 

Most waste items which contain a high level of contamination simply cannot be recycled. So in order to ensure your waste is recyclable, it's worth taking the time to remove contaminants, such as bits of food. 

A simple example is emptying out a plastic container completely before placing it into a recycling bin. Only clean plastic can be properly recycled! 

The same goes for paper products soiled by food - i.e. a dirty, greasy pizza box or KFC container containing chicken bones. 

Unfortunately, plastic grocery bags cannot be recycled at all. They are a menace in a recycling plant as they become tangled in equipment. 

Other non-organic items such as light bulbs, batteries, and electronics cannot be traditionally recycled either. Only a specialized recycling facility can process these materials.  

Looking for Specialized Heat Treatment Solutions?

Now that you have your answer to ''How does recycling work?'', Miheu offers you specific heat treatment solutions for your machinery parts. 

We are industry experts in vacuum hardening, case hardening, plasma nitriding, sandblasting, CNC services and more. 

Get in touch with us at Miheu for all your specialized heat treatment needs today.

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