Did you know there are several types of recycling? It’s not surprising if you don’t. Most consumers don’t stop to think about what happens to the items they put in their curbside bin. You’ve done your part as soon as you send off the items for recycling.
What happens at a recycling facility? It’s just as important to understand that to ensure that you’re recycling plastics correctly. Start with a quick understanding of the recycling types: chemical, energy, and mechanical.
Chemical – With chemical recycling, plastics are processed to modify them and return their structure to the raw form or fuel. From there, manufacturers can use the raw materials to create new goods.
- Energy – Energy takes those plastics that are recycled and uses them to create energy. It’s not commonly used anymore due to the emissions the burned plastics emit. It used to be that companies burned the plastics, and gases from the burning materials were captured for energy.
- Mechanical – This is the most common, so it’s likely the one you’re familiar with. It involves mechanical methods to take a plastic item and use it as something new. For example, plastic bottles from the ocean can be turned into woven threads to make clothing and shoes.
Beyond that, you have recycling processes specific to recycling. They are primary, secondary, and tertiary. These processes go hand in hand with the types of plastics, glass, and metal items sent for recycling. What does this all mean? Here’s a guide to the ways objects are recycled and what it all means for the environment.
What Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Recycling Are
That covers the ways recyclables are processed. But, you can’t get to that point without understanding primary, secondary, and tertiary recycling processes. Take a closer look at what each entails.
#1 – Primary
Primary is easy to understand as it involves the reuse or donation of unneeded items. Instead of sending something to a recycling facility, you’re donating it or reusing it to ensure it gets a full life. It’s maintaining its primary or original use. Here are a few examples of primary recycling.
Suppose you purchase a new car, you have a set of tires in the garage that aren’t in the best shape, but they still might be useful to someone. A local single mom needs a set of tires in that size to buy time until she can afford new ones. You give her your tires. That’s primary recycling at work.
You buy beer from a local brewery. You’ve paid the deposit, and the brewery expects you’ll keep returning to fill it. They don’t have to buy additional growlers for a customer’s repeat visits. Each time you return, you bring your used growler back to be washed out, sterilized, and filled with more beer. You’re reusing the growlers for their primary use.
Or, you got a new set of plates, bowls, and mugs as a gift. Your current dishware is in great shape, but you like this new set. You donate your dishware to a local charity thrift shop. You’re engaging in primary recycling.
You’ve been ordering a lot of items online lately. You have dozens of boxes to recycle, but your district stopped taking cardboard as the facility became overwhelmed. You don’t want to throw them out. Primary recycling would have you donating them to someone who needs boxes for moving.
With primary recycling, the items you have in hand get used again. It keeps products out of recycling plants and landfills. This is important as items that are recycled in one town may not be accepted in another. Instead of sending them to the landfill, they get reused for their intended purpose.
#2 – Secondary
Secondary recycling is repurposing or upcycling items to keep them out of a recycling facility. You’re finding new ways to use your recyclables or allowing others to have your recyclables to use for a new use.
An example of secondary recycling would be a plastic egg carton. Instead of recycling it, you donate it to your local school. The teacher fills them with paints for students to use during art class. The egg carton is being given a second life. You could use cardboard egg cartons as pots for your plants. Fill them with potting soil, plant seeds, and keep them watered. When the seedlings are big enough to transplant, separate each section and plant it in the garden.
Those same worn tires you have could get painted with colorful outdoor spray paint. Put them around the base of your mailbox. Once you have a couple stacked up and painted, fill them with potting soil. You can plant flowers in the tires and turn that space into a raised flower garden under your mailbox.
Take the cardboard boxes you have piling up. You could tape them shut, paint them with child-safe paints, and create giant building blocks for your children. You’re reusing them for something different than their original use.
This still ensures that items are kept from the landfill, but they’re serving a new purpose. From turning baby food jars into storage containers for small items like nuts and bolts to turning mason jars into hydroponic planters, you learn to reuse rather than recycle.
#3 – Tertiary
Go back to the ways recyclables are processed. There’s mechanical, energy, and chemical. To get there, you have to enter the realm of tertiary recycling. This is when you send your recyclables to a processing facility. There, they are sorted and sent to the right plant for reprocessing.
Plastics could be ground up, heated to melt them down, and used to create new plastic items. Plastic bags might get shredded and spun into plastic threads to make shoes and apparel. Glass is broken into small particles to be melted down and used again. Metal is also melted down into a raw form for reuse. It lowers the need for mining metal ores and the production of glass and plastics, all of which use energy and can damage the environment through the processes of mining and the creation of harmful emissions. Plus, some metals are not found in abundance and could run out if we’re not careful.
Tertiary recycling reuses the items, but it converts them back to a raw form first. You might find that the plastic bottles are ground up, melted, and mixed with new plastic to make more beverage containers. The metal melted down from the electronics you recycle could end up in a new laptop you purchase years from now.
For tertiary recycling to work, you need to make sure you’re recycling correctly. There’s a problem in the Nation with something known as “wish recycling.” It means you “wish” something you have is recyclable, and you don’t understand why it isn’t. Instead of looking at local guides to see if it really is recyclable, you put it in the bin and hope for the best.
Wish recycling, while understandable, actually causes issues in a recycling plant. Workers have to remove the items that can’t be recycled. If they go through, they can contaminate a batch of recyclables and cause everything to go into the trash instead.
Make sure the items you’re recycling are recyclable. Recycle Nation has a handy tool that allows you to search different items by ZIP to see where you should bring them if they are even recycled in your area. Visit Recycle Nation, enter your ZIP, and look for the item type to get a list of area facilities.