What Are the Different Types of Recycling Plants?

Alan Rankin

Recycling plants process used materials that would otherwise be discarded as garbage, allowing them to be reused for various purposes. The different types of recycling plants include those that process glass, metals, and paper back into raw materials. Other plants focus on items that require complicated recycling processes, such as concrete, electronic equipment and various plastics. Single-stream recycling centers improve recycling rates by taking on an unpopular task, separating household waste into its various recyclable components. Some plants are designed to recycle items that cannot be processed by other facilities, such as Christmas lights or batteries.

Plastic water bottles can usually be recycled.
Plastic water bottles can usually be recycled.

The different types of recycling plants differ by the material they are geared to reclaim; each material requires a unique process and specialized equipment. For this reason, numerous plants are necessary to process all the recyclables from a given city or region. The exception is single-stream recycling plants, also known as single-sort or commingle plants. The equipment in these plants includes electromagnets for gathering metals, air blowers to remove light plastic bottles, and paper traps, all of which are activated by optical scanners. These plants are designed to quickly and efficiently separate various recyclables, some of which will be shipped to other plants for processing.

Glass bottles can be recycled.
Glass bottles can be recycled.

The most efficient recycling plants include those that process metals like aluminum and steel. The recycled materials generated by these plants are equal in quality to new materials; the same is true of glass recycling centers. Concrete is crushed and turned into gravel or road fill, a fairly simple and straightforward process. Biodegradable materials and organic waste are transformed into useful soils and fertilizers through a chemical process called composting. These low-cost, high-return recycling processes are important for business and environmental reasons, as they increase profitability for recycling companies and reduce the burden on natural resources.

A bag made of recycled paper.
A bag made of recycled paper.

Recycling plants that deal with paper and plastic are involved in more complicated processes. Paper must be soaked in water and reduced to a fibrous matter called pulp before it can be reused. Paper with chemical additives, such as “glossy” magazine or advertising pages, can impede this technique and must be processed separately. Plastics must likewise be separated during the recycling process, as there are many different kinds of plastic, each with its own unique chemical structure. Most plastic products are marked with a numerical system that identifies the type of plastic for recycling purposes.

Recycling allows discarded materials to be repurposed and made into something new.
Recycling allows discarded materials to be repurposed and made into something new.

Various electronic components require their own specialized recycling plants. Printer and toner cartridges, for example, can often be refilled and quickly returned to the market. Batteries, on the other hand, must be handled carefully because of potentially hazardous materials; the same is true of computer components, cell phones and other forms of electronic waste, often called “e-waste.” Some recycling plants focus on specialty items that ordinary plants are not equipped to process, such as Christmas lights or abandoned sea vessels. Concerns about the environment have led to an increase in the creation of such plants around the world.

Old toner cartridges may be refilled and sold for a discount.
Old toner cartridges may be refilled and sold for a discount.
Specialized plants are needed to recycle old cell phones.
Specialized plants are needed to recycle old cell phones.
Some recycling plants may deal solely with recycling metals such as aluminum cans.
Some recycling plants may deal solely with recycling metals such as aluminum cans.
The recycling of computers and other electronics is often called e-waste.
The recycling of computers and other electronics is often called e-waste.
The recycled materials generated by glass recycling centers are equal in quality to new materials.
The recycled materials generated by glass recycling centers are equal in quality to new materials.
Some recycling plants may specialize in hazardous chemicals, such as antifreeze.
Some recycling plants may specialize in hazardous chemicals, such as antifreeze.
Reclaimed aluminum, like that used in aluminum siding, can be melted down and recycled.
Reclaimed aluminum, like that used in aluminum siding, can be melted down and recycled.
Recycling plants may focus on only one type of item, such as plastics.
Recycling plants may focus on only one type of item, such as plastics.
A paper recycling plant might make biodegradable toilet paper from recycled paper.
A paper recycling plant might make biodegradable toilet paper from recycled paper.

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Discussion Comments

irontoenail

@MrsPramm - From what I can see, most communities that have good recycling systems going have educated the populace to only buy items that use packaging they can recycle. They don't try to have every kind of plant there, they just make good use of the ones they do have.

MrsPramm

@umbra21 - The other awful thing that happens is often when companies say they are "recycling" what they really mean is they are shipping the waste off to another country so that people can do the dangerous and underpaid work of stripping it and processing it, rather than doing it in a recycling plant.

There are definitely communities around where they have set up their recycling properly, but most of the time it seems to be done rather poorly, because people just expect their part to end once they dump the items in the recycling bin.

umbra21

One of the big problems with recycling is the transport of materials to the closest plant. A lot of places don't produce enough waste of a particular kind to justify the cost of the machinery that is needed to process it, and even some places that do produce enough waste don't have the right kind of plant yet.

You can't just lump all plastic in together, for example, as it needs to be processed in different ways. Metals and glass and other things all need their own form of processing and that's not even mentioning the work that goes into separating the items in the first place.

What usually happens is that agencies are so eager to be seen collecting recycling that they don't consider the fact that the pollution from shipping it to a far away plant is more than their good deed is worth.

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