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Recycling helps create the products we use every day—from beverage containers to writing paper, carpet, and automobiles. Recycling recovers valuable materials out of the waste stream to make new products. That’s what makes it one of the oldest environmental practices and one of the most beneficial.

Benefits of Recycling

According to the U.S. EPA, recycling:

  • Conserves natural resources to help sustain the environment.
  • Reduces the need for landfilling and incineration.
  • Saves energy and prevents pollution caused by the extraction and processing of virgin materials.
  • Decreases emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • Expands U.S. manufacturing jobs and increases U.S. competitiveness.

The Recycling Loop

According to the EPA, the recycling process involves 3 main steps, which form a loop. They are (1) collection and processing, (2) manufacturing, and (3) buying recycled products. The loop ensures the overall success and value of recycling.

Collection and Processing – Recycling collection varies from community to community but primarily the collections methods are curbside, drop-off centers, buy-back centers, and deposit/refund programs. The system works when individuals take ownership and place items in the bin for recycling. If the individual doesn’t make the choice to recycle versus dispose of, the cycle doesn’t work. After collection, recyclables go to a materials recovery facility (MRF) to be sorted and prepared into marketable commodities. Recycled materials are like any commodity, so prices for the materials change and fluctuate with global market demand and quality of the raw materials.

Manufacturing – The second part of the recycling loop is when materials are turned into new products. Today, more and more products are being manufactured with total or partial recycled content. Many of these will become the same product in what is known as closed-loop recycling. For example, glass, aluminum, and steel can all be used to make new bottles and cans and cardboard can be used to make new boxes. Recycled plastics may be turned into new bottles or used to make carpeting and park benches, as well as fibers for clothing. Another innovative application includes recovered glass being used in roadway asphalt (glassphalt).

Buying Recycled Products – The third part of recycling loop is the purchase of recycled products. Government, business and individual consumers play an important role by “buying recycled.” According to EPA, “As consumers demand more environmentally sound products, manufacturers will continue to meet that demand by producing high-quality recycled products.”

Recycling Today

American communities currently recycled and composted just over 33.8% of municipal solid waste, diverting 82 million tons to recovery out of 243 million tons of trash generated. While nearly three- quarters of Americans have access to curbside programs and 92% have access to “some sort of recycling,” the national participation rate in recycling programs averages 50%. Keep America Beautiful estimates that only about 12% of public spaces may have recycling receptacles according to research completed in 2009.

The challenges and drivers of recycling revolve around issues such as citizen access to recycling programs, participation rates and incentives, and fluctuations in the global recycled commodity markets.

Identifying Recycled-Content Products

Product labels can be confusing to consumers interested in buying recycled because of the different recycling terminology used. The following definitions from the Federal Trade Commission’s “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims” may help clarify the terms.

Recycled-content products are made from materials that would otherwise have been discarded. Items in this category are made totally or partially from material destined for disposal or recovered from industrial activities—like aluminum soda cans or newspaper. Recycled-content products also can be items that are rebuilt or remanufactured from used products such as toner cartridges or computers.

Postconsumer content refers to material from products that were used by consumers or businesses and would otherwise be discarded as waste. If a product is labeled “recycled content,” the rest of the product material might have come from excess or damaged items generated during normal manufacturing processes—not collected through a local recycling program.

Recyclable products can be collected and remanufactured into new products after they’ve been used. These products do not necessarily contain recycled materials and only benefit the environment if people recycle them after use. Check with your local recycling program to determine which items are recyclable in your community.

What Gets Recycled?

What is accepted for recycling in each community is usually based on recycling markets and processing technologies. The recent “EPA Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States” report states we recycled and composted 1.46 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.34 pounds per person per day.


Aluminum has a long history of recycling. Recycling aluminum may save up to 95% of the energy needed to produce new aluminum from raw materials (mainly ore bauxite). Although aluminum is a nonrenewable resource, it can be recycled indefinitely. Recycled cans are melted into ingots weighing up to 60,000 pounds--enough aluminum to make 1.6 million new cans. It takes 60 days for a can to journey from the recycling bin through the recycling process and back to store shelves.

Besides cans, other types of aluminum, such as siding, gutters, car components, storm window frames and lawn furniture can also be recycled. Learn more online at the Can Manufacturers Institute ( and the Aluminum Association (

Electronic Waste

Electronic waste, or e-waste, includes such items as computers, phones, and TVs. While recycling of these discarded products is growing, e-waste is being generated at a much faster rate than other municipal wastes. For comprehensive national information on donating and recycling electronics, visit the U.S. EPA’s Plug-In To e-cycling program at

Wireless Phones - Cell or smart phones or PDAs can be recycled through community collection programs or retailer return programs, or donated to charity. Recycling phones saves energy and keeps usable materials out of the landfill. These products are made of precious metals, copper, plastics—some of which require energy to mine or manufacture. Recycling allows these materials to be recovered and turned in to new products. For more information visit CTIA – The Wireless Association at

Computers - Donating a working computer for reuse benefits communities, helps use valuable materials wisely, and keeps working PCs out of the trash. Computers can also be recycled through most state and local computer collection programs. Many computer manufacturers and retailers have a recycling take-back program. Obsolete computers are potentially a valuable source for secondary raw materials, such as lead, copper, and gold. They also contain hazardous substances, so it’s best to donate a computer for reuse or ensure that it is recycled properly.

Televisions - As more households upgrade technologies—transitioning from analog to digital technology and from boxy, cathode ray tube (CRT) to flat panel televisions—more old TVs will need to be safely recycled. Old televisions contain lead, copper, steel and aluminum that can be recovered through recycling. Recycling TVs helps to conserve natural resources and energy, as well as keeping potentially hazardous wastes out of the environment. Some retailers will accept televisions for recycling. If it’s still working, donate for reuse.


Glass container manufacturers use up to 70% cullet, or crushed glass, combined with soda ash, limestone and sand, to make new glass containers. Glass bottles can be recycled endlessly with no loss in quality or purity. Using recycled glass to make new glass bottles and jars reduces consumption of raw materials, extends the life of plant equipment, such as furnaces, and saves energy.

Today most glass is collected mixed, but eventually the glass must be sorted by color (clear, green, and amber), or it has limited value to container manufacturers. After being processed at a materials recovery facility, most glass then goes to a cullet processor for further cleaning and sorting to prepare the cullet to be “furnace ready”.

Like all recycled commodities, quality of glass cullet is important to its recyclability. Glass contaminants include ceramic cups and plates, clay pots, drinking glasses, light bulbs, and mirror and window glass. Recycled glass that does not meet specifications for use in making new bottles can be used for fiberglass, countertops and flooring, landscaping, road bed, abrasives, filtration, and as a blasting media. For more information, visit the Glass Packaging Institute


There are many different types of recyclable paper, called grades. While paper fibers cannot be recycled forever, paper is made from a renewable resource, trees. Today, paper is made from trees mostly grown in crop forests and from recovered paper. When paper is recycled, paper mills will use it to make new newspapers, notebook paper, paper grocery bags, corrugated boxes, envelopes, magazines, cartons, and other paper products.

Besides using recovered paper and pulp from trees to make paper, paper mills may also use wood chips and sawdust left over from lumber operations (whose products are originally used to make houses, furniture, and other things). New paper products in the U.S. today are coming more and more from recycled sources.

Office paper recovered for recycling becomes raw material for paperboard, tissue, and printing and writing papers. Most recycled corrugated boxes are made into new boxes. The rest is used for paperboard packaging, like food packaging boxes. Newspapers recovered for recycling are mostly going back into making more newsprint, and the remainder used for paperboard, tissue, and insulation, or exported. Find out more at


Most plastic products are derived from petroleum hydrocarbons. There are several different types of plastics, but the most widely used and recycled are “PET” (polyethylene terpephthalate), or #1 plastic, and “HDPE” (high-density polyethylene), #2 plastic. PET plastic is mostly soft drink and water bottles. HDPE plastic includes bottles/jugs for milk, juice, water, and laundry products.

More than 95% of all plastic bottles are either PET or HDPE. The remaining 5% are various types of plastic that can be difficult to recycle in all communities because of limited markets. In some communities, plastic bags and product wrap, called “film” plastic, can be recycled at collection programs offered through national grocery and retail chains.

Some recycled PET is being used as a raw material for new plastic bottles. The rest is used to create second-generation products like fiber, tote bags, clothing, film, food and beverage containers, carpet, strapping, fleece wear, and luggage. HDPE plastic is often recycled into bottles for liquid laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioner and motor oil, as well as used to make recycling bins, benches, and plastic lumber. Learn more at, and

Scrap Tires

Environmentally sound and economically viable markets for scrap tires recovered for recycling are tire-derived fuel, civil engineering, and ground rubber applications. Tire-derived fuel markets account for most of the scrap tires generated. Ground rubber applications include new rubber products, playground and other sports surfacing, and rubber-modified asphalt. Tires recovered and used in civil engineering projects include things such as tire shreds used in road and landfill construction. Ensure proper handling of scrap tires as stockpiles can create the potential for fire, as well as conditions for mosquito propagation. Find out more from the Rubber Manufacturers Association


Scrap steel has become the steel industry’s single largest source of raw material because it is economically advantageous to recycle old steel into new steel. In light of this, steelmaking furnaces have been designed to consume steel scrap. The steel industry uses scrap steel from recycled cans, automobiles, appliances, construction material, and other steel products. Recovered steel can be melted and used again and again to produce new steel products. Recycling steel helps save landfill space and provides a valuable resource to the steel industry.

It also preserves natural resources and energy. For every ton of steel recycled, 2500 pounds of iron ore, 1400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone are conserved. And in a year, the steel industry conserves the equivalent energy to power about 18 million homes for 12 months. Learn more at the Steel Recycling Institute


Plastics by the Numbers


Students will be able to:

  • recognize the role of plastics in our society,
  • describe the differences in plastic composition,
  • demonstrate the separation of plastics for collection and recycling, and
  • explain the recyclable nature of different types of plastic.


Students will discover and identify several physical properties of plastics and record this information in a chart to better understand plastic use.


  • Handouts – “Plastic Container Identification Code” and “Plastic Container Worksheet” (included in this lesson)
  • Collection of plastic items displaying the recycling symbol (several examples of all seven types)


  • 1 Hour


  • recycle
  • source reduction
  • waste


The generic word plastic refers to a wide range of materials. This can be confusing since there are 45 basic families of plastics and each can be made with hundreds of variations. Plastics are made from crude oil and natural gas. Basic compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are extracted and combined to produce plastics. Plastics are extra-ordinarily diverse. From contact lenses to soft drink bottles to computer consoles to automobile airbags, plastics are a family of materials that, through technology, can be used in many different forms.

The plastics industry has developed stronger and more versatile products, allowing manufacturers to do more with less, thereby conserving resources and reducing waste. Plastics manufacturers have invested in technologies that make their products lighter and more energy-efficient. Lightweight plastics often enable companies to ship more products using less fuel. For example, plastic grocery bags use 70 percent less materials now than they did 25 years ago.

Plastics prevent waste by keeping perishable foods fresh longer and by helping protect products from damage, breakage, and spoilage. Some plastic products are durable and easily reusable. Many communities across the country now recover some type of plastic for recycling, with residents actively participating in curbside or drop-off recycling programs. These collected items are being used by the plastics recycling industry to make new products such as bottles, office supplies, carpeting, jackets, and even hiking boots.

Since different plastics offer different properties that can be engineered to meet the requirements of a broad range of applications, the success of a product is often dependent on matching the right plastic with the right properties to the right application. The Society of the Plastics Industry resin identification code enables recyclers to separate the resins by type, ensuring that the recycled plastic is as homogeneous as possible to meet the needs of the end markets. Biodegradable and compostable plastics are increasingly being introduced. These plastics are primarily reproduced from renewable resources (i.e. corn, switchgrass, and grain). These plastics most frequently may be labeled Number 1 or 7.

Local recycling education programs frequently use both the number on the plastic container and product type that may be recycled, as an example “We accept Number 1 and Number 2 plastic containers for water, soda/pop, milk, and similar consumable beverages.” A recycler may be challenged to identify the type of plastic by locating the number on the container and some recycling programs are eliminating the reference to the number or plastic identification code.


To begin the lesson, ask students to share with the class their favorite type of cake. List on board or use computer to project list onto screen. Ask the students to compare and contrast the ingredients to make different types of cake including questions like do they all have the same ingredients, do some have fruit and others don’t. Briefly discuss how these are categorized as cake and yet they are different. You may want to make this an assignment before class for students to research the ingredients for their favorite cake.

Introduce the topic of plastics to the students. Brainstorm types and uses of plastics. Different plastics are suitable for different uses. Discuss the need for manufacturers to choose resin type carefully.

Give the students copies of the handout “Plastic Container Identification Code.” Discuss the components of the handout. Practice pronouncing the full name of each type of plastic. Give the students copies of the handout “Plastic Container Worksheet.” Ask students to sit in a circle around the pile of plastic containers they have brought in or that you have provided. Have each student select a container and begin to record the required information on the “Plastic Container Worksheet.”

On your signal, ask students to begin passing the containers to the right, again asking them to log the required information on their worksheets. Keep the stream flowing until all blanks are filled or until seven types are entered. Students may “draw” from the pile if necessary to keep the activity moving. Have the students share their conclusions based on the data recorded on their charts.

In the center of the circle or on a table, group the containers by their plastic code numbers. Discuss the properties of each.

Find out the types of plastics that are collected for recycling in your community. Set apart those numbers and/or container types. Have students describe differences in these containers and others to consider why these are recyclable.


Ask students: What role does plastic play in our society? Describe the plastics identification code, including numbers and descriptions of each. Why do we need a plastics identification code?

Sample of how plastic pieces will react.

MaterialFloats or Sinks
#1 plastic bottle with capFloats
#1 plastic bottle
without cap
#1 plastic non-bottleSinks
#2 plastic bottle with capFloats
#2 plastic bottle
without cap
#2 plastic bagFloats
#3 container
(with or without cap)
#4, 6-pack ringFloats
#4 plastic bagFloats
#5 plastic containerFloats
#6 expandedFloats
#6 non-expandedSinks
#7 PLA bio-based plasticVaries
#7 plastic bottleVaries

Enrichment adapted from

Technology Connections

Websites to consult:


  • Using the handout “Enrichment: Plastic Container Survey” have students survey their homes and/or grocery store. In class, analyze the data collected on the survey sheet.
  • Based upon the information collected from other research and reports, have students describe the role of home, school, and community in plastics recycling efforts. Discuss the relationship between the SPI code (SPI stands for Society of the Plastics Industry) and plastics recycling. How can home, school, and community participate in collection and recycling programs?
  • Using information provided students will explore the density of plastic. They will learn differences in the composition of different types of plastic, how their compositions impacted whether the plastic can be recycled, and why water bottles are easily recycled when plastic cups are not. They will also learn why all #2 coded plastic cannot be recycled.


  • Pieces of cut up plastic number 1-7
  • Plastic bottle #1 with cap
  • Container of water for each group
  • Salt

Enrichment Density Procedure

  1. To begin Enrichment, ask students to think about a pancake and a biscuit - although they are made of the same ingredients, (water, eggs, flour and milk) there are different quantities of these ingredients within each item. Pancake batter is runnier than biscuit batter, making it easier to pour, whereas biscuit batter is more easily molded. Also, once you make the batter for each item, you cook them at the same temperature but for different lengths of time. Pancakes cook relatively quickly at a high direct heat on the stove, while biscuits have to be put in an oven and given time to bake. Plastics are the same way. They all have the same initial components which constitute being plastic and relate to the number they are given (i.e. 1-7); however, the individual makeup within each product dictates our ability to recycle it.
  2. Explain to students that some of these plastics will sink and some will float. Demonstrate float or sink with an empty bottle with the cap on. Why does it float? Now take the cap off and fill it with water? Why does it sink?
  3. Discuss with students how the shape of an item can affect its ability to float or sink. Divide students into small groups. Hand out Plastic Container Worksheet and mark float or sink under observable package properties column.
  4. Have students predict which pieces of plastic will sink and which will float. Allow students to examine the plastic in small groups.
  5. Put plastic pieces in the water and record observations.
  6. Discuss why floating litter would be a problem for aquatic animals.
  7. How would the plastics behave if the water was very salty (like the ocean)? To test this, add several heaping tablespoons to the water and stir well. Retest plastics.


PETE (or PET) – polyethylene terephthalate
Commonly used to package soft drinks, water, beer, juice, sports drinks and other beverages, as well as edible oils, salad dressing, peanut butter, various condiments and sauces, and non-food products like household cleaners and personal products.
HDPE – high density polyethylene
Commonly used for milk, cider and water jugs, as well as detergent, fabric softener and bleach.
V or PVC– vinyl/polyvinyl chloride
Often used for salad dressing bottles, vegetable oil bottles, mouthwash, and PVC pipes.
LDPE – low density polyethylene
Used for flexible bags for dry cleaning, trash, produce, bread and shrink wrap. Recycled LDPE is often used to make grocery bags.
PP – polypropylene
Usually found in drinking straws, battery cases, some dairy tubs, bottle labels and caps.
PS – polystyrene
Commonly used for materials like expanded: packaging peanuts, meat and egg trays, and non-expanded: drinking cups, plastic utensils/cutlery, and yogurt cups.
Other plastics are often made of multiple resins or layers of different types of plastics. These may include microwavable packages or snack bags. Compostable plastics are usually included as ‘other.’

Reuse & Recycle

Dear Parents,

Young children are learning about the world around them and are becoming aware of their surroundings and community. It is important that they be provided a variety of opportunities to help develop their understandings of how waste is managed in their communities. They learned about the difference between trash and garbage and importance of recycling and reusing materials and how we can all do our part to help our world. Try some of these activities with your child.

Apple fun

Compare red and green apples. Cut each apple in half; look at the halves, count the seeds. Taste the apples—how does each taste? How does it feel to chew on an apple? Which apple does your child like better? Discuss the best option to discard the apple leftovers. What can you do with the apple core? Introduce “compost” as nature’s way of recycling.

Milk Carton Wagon

Empty and wash paper milk cartons to make a toy wagon to use for hauling pretend trash (or anything else). Staple the top closed and attach a piece of heavy string or cord to the stapled portion. Then cut out one of the four side panels and turn the carton on its side to make an open wagon. Wheels can be drawn on side or cut paper circles to glue to side.

Take a fieldtrip

Take your child to a community landfill or composting facility, recycling centers, or waste-to-energy facilities in your community. These experiences can help your child understand how the landfill, MRF (recycling center), transfer station, composting facility, or waste-to-energy facility deals with waste in the community and how everyone can help with the process.

“Reuse” Wreaths

Help your child make a wreath decorated with objects that can be used other than their originally intended use. Share ways to reuse newspaper (i.e. line a pet’s cage, wrap gifts, etc.) Display the wreath in a place that will remind your child (and other family members) the importance of reusing items. Could you identify at least 10 items for your wreath? Name them.

Let’s Remember…

Talking to your child about managing waste will help you to be aware of what your child understands, especially how he/she can help.

Empty paper milk cartons can be washed and used to make toys for creative play. You can, for instance, make milk carton wagons to use for hauling pretend trash (or anything else, for that matter). Here’s the procedure:

  • First, staple the top closed and attach a piece of heavy string or cord to the closed portion.
  • Then cut out one of the four side panels and turn the carton on its side to make an open wagon.

Some of the children might choose to play about hauling discards objects to a pretend dump. Younger children might simply use the haulers for filling and dumping small toys.

Here’s a way to make toy boats for water play (pint or quart milk cartons work best for this project).

  • Cut off the top so the bottom of the carton is about three inches high;
  • Cut or tear a paper sail from tissue paper and fasten it to a stick or straw;
  • Place a piece of clay or modeling dough in the bottom of the milk carton and put the straw in the clay.

You can also make building blocks by cutting off the tops of two milk cartons and pushing the open end of the one carton into the other. If you want, you can cover the blocks with colorful self-adhesive paper.

  • What happens to all the waste we produce? What does municipal solid waste (MSW) mean?
  • What would happen if we did not have a way to deal with our waste?
  • Tell me how you can do your part in putting waste in its place. (Recycling, reusing, composting, etc.)

Good books to read together

Take turns reading. Read a story to your child, then have your child “read” it to you!

  • Help Your Parents Save the Planet! 50 Simple Ways to go Green Now! by Play Bac, Black Dog & Leventhal.
    This book describes the ways in which parents and their families can work together to help our planet.
  • Glass by Alexandra Fix, Heinemann Raintree.
    This book talks about ways to recycle glass.
  • Metal by Alexandra Fix, Heinemann Raintree.
    This informative book explains the process of recycling metal.