Top 10 Most Recycled Materials: Lists and Examples

Updated on December 18, 2018
GA Anderson profile image

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.

The Most Recycled Materials List
The Most Recycled Materials List | Source

The List of Most Recycled Materials

Based on United States numbers, here is the quick list of the most recycled materials.

But first, a couple surprises most people would not have thought of.

Lead-Acid Batteries Most Recycled Item  Asphalt Claims Most Recycled Material
Lead-Acid Batteries Most Recycled Item Asphalt Claims Most Recycled Material | Source

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

As for the asphalt claim, concrete and steel are also claiming the #1 spot, but like the batteries, asphalt probably doesn't come to mind when recycled materials are mentioned.

Top 10 Recycled Materials

 
 
1. Concrete
6. Corrugated Cardboard
2. Steel
7. Plastics (HDPE)
3. Aluminum
8. Glass
4. Plastic (PET)
9. Mixed papers
5. Newspapers
10. Used motor oil
Table of most recycled materials

A 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 course 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 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.

Source: thebalancesmb.com

2. Steel 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.

Source: steel.org, capitalsteel.net, steelsustainability.org

The Scrap Metal Recycling Process

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 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, seperated, 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.

Crushed Can For Aluminum Recycling
Crushed Can For Aluminum Recycling | Source

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.

Source(s): zmescience.com

4. (PET) Plastic 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.

Recycled PET Plastic Bottles
Recycled PET Plastic Bottles | Source

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.

Source(s): epa.gov, Forbes.com

5. Newspapers/Newsprint 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.

Recycled Newspapers Save Trees
Recycled Newspapers Save Trees | Source

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 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.

Recycled Corrugated Cardboard Bales
Recycled Corrugated Cardboard Bales | Source

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) 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.

Recycled HDPE Plastic Milk Jugs
Recycled HDPE Plastic Milk Jugs | Source

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 Examples
HDPE Plastics Examples | Source

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.

Source: Beachapedia.com

8. Glass 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.

Recycled Materials Green Glass
Recycled Materials Green Glass | Source

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.

The Smashing Story of Recycling Glass

9. Mixed Paper 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 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 -- 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.

Recycled Motor Oil Turned Into  New Oil
Recycled Motor Oil Turned Into New Oil | Source
Types of Recyclable Oils
 
Motor oil
Hydraulic oil
Refrigerant oil
Cutting oil
Lubricating oil
Transaxle fluid
Transmission fluid
Gear oil
Differential oil
Brake fluid
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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 ga anderson

    Top Recycled Materials Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • GA Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

        ga anderson 

        3 months ago from Maryland

        Hi Diane,

        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.

        Gus

      • dianetrotter profile image

        G. Diane Nelson Trotter 

        3 months ago from Fontana

        Gary, is there any way to recycle animal fats after cooking?

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, turbofuture.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://turbofuture.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)