Geek-out on the Science of Recycling
November 30, 2019
You may know, returning empty beverage containers keeps them out of landfills, greenspaces, waterways and wildlife habitats, but have you ever wondered - where do they end up?
A Second Life for Beverage Containers
Aluminum, glass, plastic or blends of paper, plastic, aluminum foil and other metals are used for making beverage containers. Incredibly, all these materials are recyclable! Each material has its own, unique deconstruction process before it’s repurposed – some of them in ways you never imagined.
Even though it is the third most abundant element on earth, recycling this metal is cheaper and less harmful to the environment than mining for more. Here’s why:
- Aluminum left to decompose releases toxic nitrites
- Recycling aluminum is actually pretty easy
- The process only uses 5% of the energy it would take to refine new aluminum
- Aluminum recycling fast and efficient! A used aluminum container can reappear on store shelves as a brand-new container in as little as 60 days.
After cans are returned to an Alberta Depot, they’re shipped to a recycling facility where they’re shredded, melted, poured into moulds and form sheets as they cool. Depending on the size and thickness of these sheets, recycled aluminum can become livestock trailers, ladders, or new beverage containers. Recycling aluminum doesn’t reduce the quality of the metal, so this process can carry on endlessly. Can you believe almost 75 % of all aluminum metal extracted since 1888 is still in use? It’s true!
Glass is made mostly of sand, which contains two of the most abundant elements on earth: silicon and oxygen. Just like with aluminum, even though we could keep making new glass, recycling these containers is better for the environment: recycling 6 tons of glass prevents an entire ton of carbon emissions!
Alberta Depots sort glass by colour before it heads to the recycling facility. Once there, the containers are washed and crushed into small ‘cullets’. At this point, the cullets may be used as they are, or melted. No matter whether it’s crushed, or crushed and melted, glass can be endlessly recycled and become:
- New glass containers
- Glass sand for water filtration
- Countertops and flooring
- Construction materials like bricks and landscaping stones
- Highway marking beads
You may know plastic is made from one of Alberta’s most abundant resources: petroleum. The concern with new plastic bottles isn’t running out of materials to make them, but the contribution they make to the world’s waste problem. Plastic is not biodegradable. This means every plastic container that went to a landfill or ended up in the ocean is still there today.
There are many different types of plastic, but the most common types for beverage containers are PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and HDPE (High Density Polyethylene). PET is used for making thin bottles for water and soda containers, and HDPE is useful for thick containers like yogurt containers. Both are recyclable and just like glass, plastic containers are sorted by colour at Alberta Depots before being shipped to the recycling facility. Once they arrive, they’re washed, chopped, melted and squeezed into strands which can be turned into:
New plastic containers
Fleece jackets, and
Upholstery for furniture
The energy saved by recycling just one plastic bottle is pretty significant – it’s enough to light a 100 kW bulb for 4 hours!
Milk cartons and Tetra Paks
Cartons made from paper-aluminum-plastic composites typically consist of an aluminum lining or a plastic coating (or both) applied to a paper or cardboard box. Tetra Paks used for juices, milk, and wine are good examples. Giant blenders called hydrapulpers separate the paper in the from the aluminum and plastic. The separated materials are recycled as follows:
Paper is recycled into office paper, tissues, and packaging material
The aluminum and plastic combination is made into a special material used in construction
This process recycles almost 80% of these cartons. Each ton of recycled cartons saves 174 litres of oil and 7 cubic meters of landfill.
Change that Counts
The possibilities for containers are incredible. Now that you know a little more about recycling, the next time you’re driving down the highway, zipping up your fleece jacket, or buying printer paper you might find yourself wondering, “was this once a beverage container?”.
Your part is easy! Simply bring your empty beverage containers to an Alberta Depot, collect your refund and we’ll take care of the rest. To learn more about which containers are refundable and how much they’re worth, visit Recycling 101 or your local Depot.