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March 14, 2008

The Journey of Recycled Plastic — Where Does Your Bottle Go?

What happens to your water bottle once you've drained it? To mark Earth Day (April 22), we take the long, strange trip.

The voyage of recycled plastic

Photo Credit: Image Source/Getty Images

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First it falls from your hand into the trash (if you live in a town without recycling — or under a rock), where it mixes with food scraps, batteries, and a zillion other forms of detritus. From there, it settles in for a 1000-year stay at the dump, slowly degrading and eventually contaminating the groundwater. Or, if it falls from the side of a garbage scow (or maybe washes in from the sewer or is left at the beach), it will end up in the ocean; plastic accounts for up to 80 percent of all debris in the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean. Then the bottle is headed to either:

YOUR SESAME-CRUSTED TUNA The bottle grows brittle in the sun and breaks into tiny pieces; is ingested by marine life; may work its way up the food chain to the biggest fish of all: you.


TRASH ISLAND The bottle is carried on currents to a massive continent of trash floating just beneath the surface of the North Atlantic or Pacific (where some 20 million tons of garbage — enough to blanket South America — float).

Because you sort your recycling (you do, right? Of course you do), it goes out to the curb in a shiny blue bin. Then it's off to the recycling center, where the bottle is placed on a conveyor belt and separated from glass and aluminum by humans and machines (which use magnets, shakers, and blowers), then crushed with its bottle friends into a bale. At the after-market manufacturer, it gets further crushed, washed, dried, and melted — into yarn, sheets, or pellets. Then the bottle ends up as either:

THE DEEP PILE IN THE DEN It is woven into the stain-resistant rug underfoot (carpet companies are among the largest plastic recyclers).


YOUR FAVORITE HOODIE It is spun into fiber to be reincarnated as fleece clothing by tree-hugging outfitters like Patagonia.


BACK TO THE BOTTLE It is melted down and remade into a bottle, and starts the journey all over again.

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