A Look at the Recycling Process

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Did you ever wonder what happens to the objects that you toss into recycling bins? Here’s a look at how glass, plastic, aluminum and paper are recycled.


People have been using and reusing glass for thousands of years. As long as 3,000 years ago, Egyptians used glass to make jewelry, cups and other items. Glass is made of sand, soda ash and limestone and is one of the easiest materials to recycle. Here’s how it works.

  • People bring their glass to recycling centers.
  • The glass is sorted by color at these centers.
  • The glass is transported to a processing facility where it is cleaned and crushed into what is called cullet.
  • The cullet is brought to a manufacturing plant and mixed with more sand, soda ash and limestone.
  • The mixture is heated in a furnace and turned into a liquid.
  • The liquid is then poured into molds and shaped into new products.


Unlike glass, which is made entirely of natural substances—minerals--plastic is composed of man-made and raw materials, including petroleum and crude oil. Here’s how plastic is recycled.

  • People bring their used plastics to a recycling center.
  • The plastic is brought to a recycling plant where it is washed and inspected.
  • The recyclable plastic is washed and chopped into tiny flakes.
  • The flakes are separated in a flotation tank.
  • The flakes are dried and then melted into a liquid.
  • The liquid is fed through a screen for even more cleaning. It comes out in long strands.
  • The strands are cooled and cut into pellets.
  • The pellets then make their way to manufacturers who use them to make new products.


Aluminum can be recycled quickly and easily. In fact, a soda can you recycle today could be back on a store shelf in about two months! Making an aluminum can from recycled aluminum uses 96% less energy than it does making one for the first time. Here’s how it is recycled.

  • You bring your aluminum cans to a recycling center.
  • They are moved to a recycling plant and shredded and melted.
  • The melted aluminum is cooled and formed into block called an ingot.
  • The ingot is made into sheets and used to make new products.


Paper is made of tiny fibers. Because these fibers eventually become weak, paper cannot be recycled forever. Most types of paper can be recycled, but some types—those with a glossy or waxy coating—are too expensive to recycle. When you recycle paper, you should try to separate newsprint, white paper and cardboard. Here’s a look at the recycling process for paper.

  • You bring your paper to the recycling center.
  • The paper is sorted and transported to a pulping facility.
  • The paper is soaked and heated in huge vats, becoming pulp. Chemicals in the liquid separate the ink from the paper.
  • The pulp is screened and cleaned to remove glue, other debris and any remaining ink.
  • The pulp is refined and beaten to make it ready to become paper again.
  • The pulp is fed into a machine that spits out the pulp onto a flat moving screen where it forms sheets.
  • The sheets are rolled and dried and ready for their new life.

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