What to Expect When Visiting a Recycling Plant

What Is a Recycling Plant?

Recycling Plants are facilities in which recyclable materials are delivered to, processed, cleaned, and broken down into usable byproduct. Fortunately, these plants can be located across the United States and across the world. Unfortunately, the most important step in recycling and the function of a recycling plant is actually getting the used content to the plant. Each recycling plant follows one of the following collecting principles: curbside pick up, drop-off centers, buy-back centers, or deposit/return programs. And so, all of these methods have their own appeal and successes.

Curbside Pickup:

Specialized trucks which are fitted with separate containers for different types of recyclable materials travel city streets. Once picked up, workers do a preliminary sorting of materials as they are thrown into the truck. Additionally, some communities require homeowners to sort and separate recyclables themselves, but this can reduce participation rates.

Drop-Off Centers:

A central location is set up to accept recyclable materials, which the homeowners transport themselves. 

Buy-Back Centers:

Buy-back centers are similar to drop-off centers except they pay homeowners for their items based on market values. These are more commonly seen as part of a retail business, such as an auto scrap yard that buys scrap metal by weight.

Deposit/Refund Programs:

These programs are familiar to anyone in the United States who has ever purchased a beverage in a can or bottle. The deposit, usually 5 cents, is added to the sale price. You can then return the empty bottle or can to a collection center and redeem it for a refund of the deposit.

American History of Recycling


New York City creates a materials recovery facility. Trash is sorted at “picking yards” and separated into various grades of paper, metals, and carpet. All of which is sorted for recycling and reuse.


Recycling advocates and reuse programs embrace the phrase “Waste as Wealth” to describe the revenue to be earned from sorting and reselling items found in household trash.


The first American aluminum can recycling plants open in Chicago and Cleveland.


During World War I the Federal government creates the Waste Reclamation Service. Marking the reign of recycling with the motto, “Don’t Waste Waste - Save It.” 


People survive the Great Depression by peddling scraps of metal, rags, and other items.


Goods such as nylon, rubber, and many metals are rationed and recycled to help support the war effort.


The all-aluminum can is introduced. Beginning the revolution of recycling cans to make cars.


The Mobius Loop is introduced as the symbol for Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.


First Earth Day brings national attention to the problem of increasing waste and the importance of recycling.


The first “Bottle Bill” is born. Oregon introduces a refundable deposit (a nickel) on beer and soda bottles as an incentive to recycle.


The first recycling mill is built in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.


University City, MO becomes one of the first municipalities in the country to offer Curbside Recycling to its residents.


The Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is enacted to close open dumps, create standards for landfills, incinerators and the disposal of hazardous waste.


Woodbury, New Jersey becomes the first city in the US to mandate recycling.


The number of curbside recycling programs in the US increases to about 1,050.


The total number of curbside programs in the US grows to a total of 5,404, a growth of 4,354 programs in only 4 years!


Americans recycle a record 47.6 billion soft drink containers, an increase of 500 million over the previous year. Aluminum cans are recycled at a rate of 63% in the U.S. with the highest state-wide rate in California at 80%.


The U.S. recycles at a rate of 25 percent.


The EPA confirms a link between global warming and waste, showing that reducing our garbage and recycling cuts down greenhouse gas emissions.


Five states pass laws requiring that unwanted electronics be recycled. San Francisco becomes the first U.S. city to prohibit the distribution of plastic bags by grocery stores.


More than 585 million pounds of consumer electronics are recycled—an increase of 125 million pounds (more than 25 percent) over 2011.


California enacts the first ever state-wide ban on plastic bags in grocery and convenience stores.

Recycling Processes in a Recycling Plant

The entire recycling process begins as soon as a consumer buys an item that can be recycled. The entire function of a recycling plant is void if the consumer fails to properly dispose of the recyclable product. So this entire process depends on the consumer taking a little initiative and placing recyclable materials in the right place. Once properly disposed of, all of this material be transferred to the city’s collection station. Once there, the products are tipped into large transfer trucks which then transport the loads to a materials recovery center. 

Here is a quick step by step process of the recycling process: 
  1. Recycling collection trucks dump recyclables into a larger transfer truck. Which then heads to a materials recovery center. 
  2. Once the collection trucks arrive at the materials recovery facility, all of the bottles, cans, paper, cardboard, and other items are unloaded. The products are then placed on a conveyor belt.
  3. Trash and corrugated cardboard are pulled out by hand and dropped into separate chutes that go to large bins below. Trash is trucked to the landfill and cardboard goes to a fiber baler.
  4. Slotted rollers pull out and crush glass bottles.
  5. The conveyor feeds the remaining stream of recyclables to a rake-like separator that allows plastic and metal containers to drop off to a side conveyor. Paper and cardboard roll over the top.
  6. On three conveyor lines, fiber items including paper, cardboard, and boxboard are pulled out by hand and dropped into chutes over separate bins. Then they are ready to be fed to a conveyor that goes to the fiber baler.
  7. On a similar container line, various types of plastic bottles are pulled off by hand and dropped into bins for the container baler.
  8. After plastics are removed from the container line, a rotating magnet above the line grabs steel metal cans and pulls them into a bin.
  9. The bales of paper and cardboard are stacked and stored for transportation to paper mills for additional break down and recycling. 
  10. Bales of compacted bi-metal cans (made of steel and tin) and aluminum cans are stacked and stored for transportation to metal processors for additional break down and recycling.
  11. Bales of compacted plastics are stacked and stored for transportation to manufactures for additional break down and recycling.  

Pros and Cons of Recycling Plants


Reduced Energy Consumption:

Using recyclable materials to create new materials uses significantly less energy when compared to using raw new materials. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions generated by the manufacturing process and lowers global energy consumption. Additionally, when you recycle, you also eliminate the need for manufacturers to acquire raw materials through processes such as mining and refining. They’ve already got the material they need from you, so it’s just a matter of repurposing it.

Decreased Pollution:

By recycling, you drastically reduce the amount of industrial and general waste. Therefore, by recycling you are removing plastic bottles from ending up in landfills and the ocean.

Considered Very Environmentally Friendly:

Recycling is an act that can heavily impact the deforestation problem on Earth. Recycled paper products mean fewer trees that need to be cut down and processed.

Slows the Rate of Resource Depletion:

Sooner or later, the Earth is going to run out of raw materials. It might not be for a long while, but the concern is still there. And by recycling, you limit the need to mine and use those raw materials to make new products. Instead, your recycled material is used.

Decreases Landfill Waste:

Recycling used products results in less trash going into landfills. This is a very good thing since landfills can slowly destroy the natural environment. Simply put, we don’t want them to keep growing.


Recycling Isn’t Always Cost Effective:

There are many hidden costs and processes associated with recycling. After all, someone has to take the time handling recycled products. There is also an extra catch with recycling. In order to repurpose certain recycled materials, separate manufacturing plants need to be built and used. This would counteract the advantage recycling has of creating less pollution, since more may actually be generated as a result of the additional factory.

High Up Front Costs:

Establishing new recycling protocols often involves a high initial cost. Recycling isn’t a process that just happens. There are units that need to be set up, factory upgrades that need to be made, and attaining trucks to haul the recycled material.


Recycling and the recycling plant's purpose and success depend completely upon us, the consumer. If we fail to properly dispose of used recyclable materials, the recycling plants will ultimately fail. Additionally, as we have seen in this article, that there are various forms of recycling plants. Some plants are primarily responsible for sorting general recyclable goods, while others specialize in the actual recycling process of specific materials. Now I hope that this article has inspired us all to do our part and recycle.

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Tyler Farr

Tyler is an energetic nature enthusiast who is currently considering moving into a tiny house. Tyler and his wife enjoy hiking, mountain biking, camping, and doing anything in the great outdoors. He hopes that the articles he writes will help others learn how important it is to take care of the environment.

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