GA Anderson writes on recycling and other environmental and green ecological issues. Earth sciences and a green economy are our future.
There are very few consumer products that cannot be recycled, but some are easier and more economical to do than others. And some are more critically important to recycle.
This list of the most recycled materials, and examples of how and what they are recycled for, will help you understand why they are so important to both our environment and our wallet.
What Are the Most Recycled Materials?
Based on United States numbers, here is the quick list of the most recycled materials. But first, there are a couple surprises most people would not have thought of.
- Lead-Acid Batteries: When thinking of recycling, most people think of materials like steel or plastic, so lead-acid batteries might not make their list. But it is a fact worth knowing because the industry claims that 99% of all lead-acid batteries get recycled. You can read more about these and other batteries at Battery Recycling: Facts, Questions, and How-to Tips
- Asphalt: As for the asphalt claim, concrete and steel also claim the #1 spot, but—like the batteries—asphalt probably doesn't come to mind when recycled materials are mentioned.
Top 10 Recycled Materials (U.S.)
- Plastic (PET)
- Corrugated Cardboard
- Plastics (HDPE)
- Mixed Papers
- Used Motor Oil
Note About Asphalt and Concrete Recycling Claims
Asphalt, concrete, and steel are locked in a battle of counter-claims about which is the most recycled material in the world, but that may be due to each one using different measures for their claims.
Asphalt claims an 80% recycle rate but offers no total volume rate. Concrete claims a 70% to 80% recycle rate, but because it is recycled into two different streams—fine aggregate and coarse aggregate chunks—it is a disputed claim. Then comes steel's claim of an 88% recycle rate.
By sheer volume, asphalt and concrete may be contenders for the #1 spot, but when rate of recycling matters most, steel is the undisputed #1.
The Details of the List
1. Concrete Is the Unrecognized Leader
Ask about recycled materials and you probably won't hear anyone mention concrete. It just doesn't get any respect.
However, according to the concrete industry, it is the most bulk recycled material in North America. The reason you don't hear about concrete recycling may be due to that word "bulk" and its non-glamorous applications.
Here are some industry claims:
- It typically only comes from construction and demolition waste, (CDW), and accounts for about 25% of that solid waste stream. So there is no personal connection like we have with steel or plastics.
- It is the King of Bulk: Over 140 million tons, (compared to steel's 70 million tons), of concrete are recycled every year.
- The largest use for recycled concrete is as the fine aggregate used for road base construction, followed by use for soil stabilization and landscaping materials.
2. Steel Is the King of the Recycling World
Steel's crown is well deserved. Current estimates, (2018), are that 88% of all used steel is recycled. It is 100% recyclable, and can be reused over and over without any quality loss. It is also the most recycled material, per ton, in the world.
Here are some more steel-related tidbits;
- Each year 70 million tons of domestic steel scrap is used in the production of new steel.
- 90 percent of steel making by-products, (slag, water, gasses, dusts and energy), are reused or recycled.
- Making steel from recycled scrap uses 75% less energy than used in making virgin steel.
Examples of what recycled steel is used for are endless. It is said that two out of every three tons of steel are made from recycled material. Which means you could say that two out of three new steel-containing products; cars appliances, tin cans, etc. will be made with recycled steel.
3. Aluminum Is a Prince of Recycling
As a ferrous metal, (non-magnetic), aluminum is recycled and processed in much the same way as steel. It is hammered, ripped apart, separated, shredded, and bundled off to a mini-mill foundry to be smelted into ingots that are then sent to aluminum making mills—the Big Furnaces.
Second only to steel in recycling percentages, aluminum also has the personal connection of individual collection and recycling, versus. steel's primarily industrial-scale recyclers.
Here is how aluminum fits into the picture:
- It has a 67% recycling rate.
- For home recycling, it is the most valuable material in your bins.
- Using recycled aluminum saves 95% of the energy and resources used to make virgin aluminum
- 20 ingots of recycled aluminum can be made with the same energy costs that it takes to make 1 ingot of aluminum from ore.
- North America recycles 5 million tons of it each year.
- 75% of all aluminum ever manufactured in North America is still, (through recycling), in use today.
4. (PET) Plastic Is a Minor Prince of the Kingdom
Think of those clear plastic water and beverage bottles and you are almost right. That type of clear plastic—PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic—makes up about 95% of this category. Clear plastic cups and packaging, such as on retail products, accounts for the remaining 5%.
Although it is a popular recycling program, plastics recycling is far from being as successful as the other leading materials.
Considering estimates that it can take up to 500 years for PET plastics to decompose in a landfill, these facts show how much more we can do as plastics consumers.
- North America produces about 5,500 million pounds of PET plastic jars and bottles yearly, but only about 250 million pounds are recycled for producing food and beverage containers
- The plastics industry claims PET plastics have a 29.9% recycling rate, but ...
- Only about 9% of PET plastics in our municipal waste streams, (garbage and recycling collection), are recycled for reuse. About 15% are combusted for energy generation, and the remaining 75% end up in landfills.
- North Americans throw away, (not recycle), about 35 billion plastic bottles every year.
5. Newspapers/Newsprint Are Another Minor Prince of the Realm
As a recycled material, newspaper recycling is all about the trees. Although it is a bulky item in landfills, it is one of the quickest decomposers of the lot. And, other than the problem of filling our landfills, (not a small problem), it is not a hazard to our environment. Except for the trees of course.
Newspapers, (newsprint), is different from most other recyclable papers. Because it is an untreated paper, it is considered uncontaminated and is a material category separate from other papers.
- Newspapers have a 67% recycling rate
- Americans use 85 million tons of paper a year; about 680 pounds per person.
- Recycling a single run of the Sunday New York Times would save 75,000 trees.
- 10 million tons of newsprint are thrown away each year in the United States.
- Recycled newspaper/newsprint can save up to 60% of the energy costs of using virgin newsprint.
Source(s): Paper Recycling Facts
6. Corrugated Cardboard Is a Not-So-Minor Prince of the Realm
As a recycled materials category, corrugated cardboard has two components; actual corrugated cardboard, (the industry calls it OCC, for old corrugated cardboard), and paperboard.
OCC has at least three layers; an inner and outer paperboard layer, and a sandwiched wavy layer which is what gives it strength.
Paper board is the type of cardboard you see in cereal or shoe boxes. Or even the thick paper support backing you see on retail product packages.
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Not all OCC cardboard or paperboard can be recycled. If it has prepared food grease, (like corrugated pizza boxes), or a coating, (like the wax coating on milk cartons - yes they are made from paperboard), it is considered contaminated and not suitable for recycling.
- OCC and paperboard have a 67.5% recycle rate.
- Cardboard can be recycled up to 7 times before its materials become unsuitable to use again. Over 50% of all cardboard boxes contain about 50% recycled materials.
- Over 90% of all products shipped in the United States are shipped in corrugated boxes, which totals more than 400 billion square feet of cardboard each year.
- Cardboard and paper make up around 41% of solid waste streams. That's almost half of all waste collected.
- A grocery store can generate between 8 and 20 tons of cardboard waste each month.
- It takes approximately three tons of trees to manufacture just one ton of virgin cardboard
About 51 percent of recycled OCC is used to make new corrugated board, another 11.5 percent is used for paperboard materials, such as cereal boxes.
About 15% is used for other everyday items, like; toilet paper, paper towels, and cat litter. And the rest is either used for energy generation, (in place of using fossil fuel), or discarded as unusable.
7. Plastics (HDPE) Are a Lord of the Recycling Realm
HDPE plastic, (High Density Polyethylene), is non-clear plastic, such as those opaque milk jugs, shampoo bottles, or other colored plastics.
Wikipedia tells us that High-density polyethylene (HDPE) or polyethylene high-density (PEHD) is a thermoplastic polymer produced from the monomer ethylene.
With a high strength-to-density ratio, HDPE is used in the production of plastic bottles, plastic bags, and corrosion-resistant piping. It is commonly recycled, and has the number "2" as its resin identification code.
Other "colored plastics" is a big category. From straws to bottle caps, plastic spoons to Red Solo cups, and Legos to rubber duckies, High Density Plastics includes almost all stiff or flexible plastic items.
HDPE Plastics Recycling Facts
It’s lightweight yet super-strong, and is today’s most widely used type of plastic. That’s why an HDPE milk jug that weighs 2 ounces can carry a gallon of milk.
- HDPE plastic bottles have a 34.1% recycle rate. That's about 310,000 tons per year. But it's cousin, the plastic bag, has a dismal 5.5% recycle rate.
- Almost 90% of the U.S. population has access to plastics recycling programs, most of it municipal curbside pick-up.
- Over a billion pounds of HDPE bottles are produced annually.
- Over 126 billion plastic grocery bags (HDPE bags) were produced in the US in 2015. That's an average of about 400 bags used for every US resident.
8. Glass Is a Minor Lord of the Kingdom
Like plastics, the majority of North Americans have easy access to glass recycling programs, mostly through curb-side pick-up. But unlike plastics, glass recycling is not a darling of the recycling world.
Even though glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity, the bulk recycling process is not as economically profitable as other materials, and the end-user manufacturers are more critical of what they will accept.
Although colored and clear glass are often mixed together in the bulk pick-up containers, it does go through a color sorting process in the recycling facility.
Some glass manufacturers demand a strict separation process because they need to control the exact amount of colored glass that is used in their new glass recipe, but others, (those making generic green or brown glass), may accept any bulk glass scrap.
Recycled Glass Facts
- Overall, glass has a 34% recycle rate in non-deposit states, and a 63% rate in states that do require a consumer bottle deposit, (typically about 5 cents per glass bottle).
- An estimated 80 percent of recovered glass containers are made into new glass bottles. The remaining 20% is used in "secondary" applications which include sandblasting, concrete payment, tile, and filtration.
- Reuse happen quickly. A glass container can go from a recycling bin to a store shelf in as little as 30 days.
- Other glass products such as cookware, dishware, ceramics, windows, and specialty glass are considered contaminants due to their chemical composition or heat-resistant properties and are not included in glass recycling programs.
9. Mixed Paper Is the Misunderstood Lord of the Realm
Mixed paper means just what it says, all paper that isn't cardboard. Treated, colored, thick, thin, shiny or dull, office copy paper or gift wrapping paper, mixed paper is one big recyclable material category.
Mixed paper that doesn’t fall into the category of corrugated cardboard or newspaper), constitutes the largest portion of municipal solid waste. In short, mixed paper is the largest part of our garbage collection.
As for that misunderstood Lord part, it is probably because it is one of the least valuable recyclable commodities.
- Mixed paper has a 43.6% recycling rate.
- 4.5 million tons of office paper is thrown away each year in the United States.
- Producing recycled white paper creates 74% less air pollution, 35% less water pollution, and 75% less processed energy than producing paper from virgin fibers.
- About 66% of paper uses recycled mixed paper.
- Recycling one ton of paper can save 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water and 463 gallons of oil, according to the EPA.
10. Used Motor Oil Is the Recycled Material No One Remembers
There is a reason it is at the bottom of the list. It is unglamorous, it is usually confined to commercial locations so there's no personal connection, and it is messy.
Used oils such as engine lubrication oil, hydraulic fluids, and gear oils can pollute the environment if not disposed of properly.
Used oil recycling should get more respect. Just one gallon can be re-refined to make 2.5 quarts of new oil, but it would take 42 gallons of crude to make the same amount.
Types of Recyclable Oils
Power steering fluid
- Waste oil, (used oil), has a 60% recycling rate.
- Approximately 800 million gallons are recycled annually in the United States.
- If all the waste oil in the United States was recycled in a single year, it would save half the output of the Alaskan pipeline for the same period.
- Used oil can be re-refined into lubricants, processed into fuel oils, and used as raw materials for other refining and petrochemical industries.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 ga anderson
Top Recycled Materials Comments
0.0 on April 16, 2020:
we just need to ban plastic bags in general
Ronald Carrol Harbin on May 29, 2019:
We need to get our merchandise stores to start using some sort of recycled plastic bags as this is a growing concern of mine as well as many other concerned people of this earth to help protect it as well as other creatures that may be harmed by our plastic bags going into the trash every day!
ga anderson (author) from Maryland on December 18, 2018:
If you are asking about home-use quantities, the answer is not really.
It is unlikely you have an available pick-up or drop-off choice, and commercial recyclers won't bother with household quantities.
But ... if it is a social-conscience thing, you can try to sweet-talk a local restaurant into adding your recyclable to their used oil container.
G. Diane Nelson Trotter from Fontana on December 18, 2018:
Gary, is there any way to recycle animal fats after cooking?