America Recycles Day: What your recyclables turn into

While recycling has sustained a healthy amount of public skepticism - in some cases due to disheartening statistics like Illinois' 8.7% plastic recycling rate - the transformative process does work for many things.

Amid recycling shortfalls like styrofoam and cling wrap, there exists a number of recycling success stories. Old magazines. Pop cans. Milk cartons. These everyday household items are recycled and turned into new products every day.

It's these small wins that are being celebrated nationally today through America Recycles Day, also known as National Recycling Day. It's a national observance, recognized by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and dedicated to promoting recycling across the country.

According to the environmental nonprofit leading the holiday's movement, Keep America Beautiful, recycling saves energy and resources, reduces landfills, cuts down on greenhouse gasses, creates jobs and, ultimately, gives garbage a new life.

This year, the nonprofit is celebrating by asking people to take their "Recycling Reality Check Quiz," which is filled with tidbits like the fact that used aluminum cans are recycled and back on the grocery shelf as new cans in as little as 60 days.

The quiz also highlights ways that the most littered item in the world can be transformed into park benches, pallets and flowerpots. Can you guess it?

With about 4.5 trillion discarded each year worldwide and 9.7 billion discarded along roadways and waterways in the U.S., it's cigarette butts.

Those numbers are from studies done by nonprofit tobacco control organization Truth Initiative and Keep America Beautiful itself.

Through Keep America Beautiful's recycling program, cigarette butts can be sent for free to recycling company TerraCycle. KAB also provides cigarette receptacles to nongovernmental organizations, community groups and local governments at no cost.

Once they arrive at TerraCycle, the butts are shredded and sanitized to remove contaminants, and then separated into tobacco, paper and cellulose acetate filters. The tobacco and paper are dried and mixed with other organic materials to create compost, while the filters are dried and turned into a powder that's used to make plastic products.

Kay McKeen, founder and executive director of environmental education nonprofit SCARCE, said some of her favorite recycling examples are transformations that allow for a long-term second-use, such as plastic pop bottles turned into carpeting.

"When you make something that's going to be in the garbage really quickly like a plastic bottle, you recycle that plastic bottle and then it's going to be something else - but usually only for a short time. That's not a great answer," she said. "But when the pop bottles get turned into carpeting, that's going to be carpeting for a long time, maybe eight or 10 years."

Another example is No. 2 plastics - which includes things like milk jugs, shampoo bottles and detergent containers - turned into benches. SCARCE has one such bench at its HQ in Addison.

Even things that don't belong in the curbside recycling bin can be recycled. For instance, plastic bags of any kind cannot be accepted by your typical Materials Recycling Facility, but they are accepted at grocery stores like Jewel Osco.

Waste Management's Vice President of Recycling, Brent Bell, added that plastic water and soda bottles can be turned into yarn, which goes on to make things like shoes, jackets and clothing.

"Many major brands use recycled PET to make new clothes," Bell said in an email. "In fact, our WM frontline uniforms are made from recycled bottles that are collected from our curbside programs."

Waste Management also uses No. 2 plastics to make new recycling and trash carts for its curbside collection programs.

• Jenny Whidden,, is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

  Processed recyclables including aluminum cans, left, are bundled and ready to ship out from the Groot Industries material recovery facility in Elk Grove Village. Paul Valade/
  A mountain of recyclables is ready to be sorted at Groot Industries material recovery facility in Elk Grove Village. Paul Valade/
No. 2 plastics - which include things like milk jugs, shampoo bottles and detergent containers - can even be turned into benches. Environmental education nonprofit SCARCE has one such bench at its HQ in Addison. COURTESY OF SCARCE
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