Here's how your trash gets recycled into new plastic bags

Ready for shopping!
Christopher McFadden

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Recycling is one of the best ways of reducing the amount of stuff we simply bury in large holes in the ground. Not only is this good for the environment, but the process is actually pretty interesting to watch in action. 

Unfortunately, not everything that is thrown away can actually be recycled. This is for various reasons, but the main impediment is the fact that processes may not exist for recycling a particular kind of throw-away item. 

However, at this facility, plastic waste can be more or less completely recovered to make things like plastic bags. 

Let's find out how. 

trash recycling dump
Source: Interesting Engineering

Step 1: Sorting the trash

Any trash that is scheduled for recycling must first be sorted for suitable materials that can be recycled. At this particular recycling facility, a mixture of machines and human workers pick over piles of trash for things like plastics, glass, paper, metals, etc. 

These are artificially selected and concentrated prior to the process of recycling them commencing. Once piles of sorted materials are complete, the materials need to be pre-processed before the material they are made can be recovered and made into something new. 

recycling trash shredding
Source: Interesting Engineering

For most materials, like plastic, for example, the trash needs to be chopped up into small pieces to standardize them into a useable "raw" material. This can be done in a variety of ways, but one of the most basic, and efficient, is to simply shred them into little strips. 

Special shredding machines are used to do this, and the shredded parts are collected in large sacks ready for processing. For large, more solid items, like plastic bottles, for example, another special machine is used that includes a large, sharp, screw-like device to grind the plastic into little chunks or chips that are then also collected in sacks or special hoppers.

trash recycling screw
Source: Interesting Engineering

Once the trash has been pre-processed into a more useable form, the next step is to clean it. This is to remove as many contaminants as possible to leave just the material, like plastic, without remnants of the original item's contents or soil, etc. 

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In this particular facility, the same "screw" that macerates the plastic also contains a dedicated cleaning and filtering section for this purpose. 

For other materials, like paper, large piles of trash paper are loaded onto a conveyor belt ready to be fed into a processing machine.

recycling trash paper
Source: Interesting Engineering

In this machine, the loose paper is sifted and compressed to form large "bails" of compressed paper. These bails are then transported by forklift trucks or other specialist machines and are stacked in a warehouse ready for the next phase of their journey. 

Step 2: Further cleaning and processing

Once things like plastic bags, etc, have been shredded, the next step is to expose the plastic shreds to another round of cleaning. In this facility, the shreds are dropped into a special liquid-filled machine with rotating paddles that force the shreds through the liquid to clean and partially liquefy them.

This forms a sort of plastic shred mush that is pushed through the machine until it reaches the next phase of the recycling process. The mush is then drained and heated, and the bits of plastic are ground down into a fine powder. 

recycling trash plastic powder
Source: Interesting Engineering

This powder is then stored in a special hopper ready to be tapped when needed. 

Step 3: Making plastic pellets

The plastic powder, once ready, is then transferred to another machine ready for further processing. In this case, the powder is melted down and reformed into lental-sized plastic pellets. 

These pellets, once formed, are, in turn, fed via a series of sluices to more hoppers for storage. 

trash recycling pellets
Source: Interesting Engineering

Different types of plastic, and colors, are processed in a similar fashion to form small pellets of plastic ready for the next step - making something new from them.

Step 4: Making the next items

With the "raw" plastic pellets now ready, these are, in turn, fed into another machine ready for processing into a brand new item. In this case, the plastic pellets will be melted down again and turned into plastic carrier bags. 

To do this, the plastic pellets are macerated and melted to form a thick plastic paste that is drawn through a series of machines to make thin, plastic sheets. These sheets are then would into bundles of plastic sheets and stored until needed. 

recycling trash rolls
Source: Interesting Engineering

When a new plastic bag run is ready to go, a roll of plastic sheet is fed into another machine that cuts the sheet into equal rectangular sheets of plastic. 

With that done, the plastic sheets are formed into the two-sided, open-ended envelopes of plastic that are required to make plastic bags. These are then fed to another machine to cut out the overall shape of the plastic bag using a special cutting head that cuts stacks of bags in one go. 

trash recycling plastic bags
Source: Interesting Engineering

Each stack of bags is then fed out of the machine via an automated conveyor belt ready for packing. Once in the packaging and bagging area, human workers package the plastic bags ready for shipping out to the facility's customers. 

recycling trash complete
Source: Interesting Engineering

And with that, the recycling process is now complete!

If you enjoyed watching this industrial process in action, you might be interested in another? How about, for example, watching how garbage trucks are actually made

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