How Many Times Can That Be Recycled?

I used to think that plastic water bottles could be infinitely recycled, that every time I tossed one into the blue bin, it eventually came out to be another plastic bottle. As it turns out, that’s not the case. Some materials can be recycled infinitely, but plastic is not one of them.

So if a recyclable isn’t reborn as the original item, where does it go? I found out most recyclable items are recycled down (or “downcycled”). That means your water bottle may turn into a synthetic fabric or material for a park bench.

But can that park bench be recycled? Can my “recycled” notebook be re-recycled? Just how many times can that material be recycled?

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Plastic: Once or twice

When it is recycled, the quality of the plastic decreases. So, most of the time, plastic is downcycled into something like plastic lumber or synthetic fibers for fabric or insulation. It’s not going to become another plastic water bottle or whatever it was originally. And then it’s no longer recyclable; you can’t throw the shoe or sweater made from plastic bottles into your blue bin once it goes out of style.

So once that item made from recycled plastic item is no longer wanted, it will likely end up in a landfill. There, it will eventually break down into microplastics that will just sit there for eternity — or worse, leach out into the environment. So the next time you think it’s fine to buy plastics because they can be recycled, remember they’re usually recycled once or twice and then no more.

One great way to reduce your plastic waste is to avoid single-use plastics by carrying your own water bottle, reusable straw, flatware, and to-go containers when you go out. Some great alternatives are stainless steel water bottles and bamboo utensils.

Aluminum: Infinite

Your soda cans can be recycled an unlimited number of times. Yes, you read that right: infinite. Aluminum cans are the most valuable recycled item in the United States and have the highest return rate from the time the can is dropped off at a recycling center or picked up by your garbage man. Next time you’re thirsty, I highly suggest you grab a cold drink in a can, not a plastic bottle. Just be sure to pop it in the recycling bin when you’re done!

Other Metals: Infinite

Metals are categorized into ferrous and non-ferrous metals. All metals have an unlimited lifespan, and it is always a good idea to recycle them, regardless of how much you have. If you’re interested in how much cash you can make by being an eco-warrior, read The Basics of Recycling Scrap Metal for Money.

Paper: 5 to 7

Paper is almost as tricky as plastic. It’s made up of long fibers, so every time paper is recycled, those fibers will be shortened, making it harder to be recycled the next time.

The average number of times your printer paper can be recycled is about five to seven times. After that, the fibers will become too short and can’t be made into copier paper anymore. At that point, the short fibers can be used to make things like newsprint or egg cartons.

If you want to get an idea of how it works, try recycling your own paper into new paper!

Glass: Infinite

Last but definitely not least is glass. So am I harming the environment by using glass as my container of choice? Absolutely not! Glass, like metal, can be recycled an unlimited number of times. Also, it is more cost-effective to reuse and recycle glass than to create from scratch,

The only thing you have to watch out for is the type of glass. Be sure to ask your local recycling center which types of glass they accept, as different types of glass have different melting points and can’t be recycled together. Think of it this way: if you tried melting coconut oil and a piece of chocolate, the chocolate would melt slower and therefore they wouldn’t be done at the same time.

Generally, container glass (bottles and jars) can be recycled, but do check with your local recycling program. Non-container glass (like windows, mirrors, and glassware) generally cannot be recycled.

All in all, you’re a superhero if you recycle in the first place, especially if you live somewhere without a government-funded program. But now that I know metals and glass containers are the best way to go, I will always choose them first — regardless of access to recycling facilities.

[embedded content]Feature photo courtesy of Shirley810, Pixabay.

Editor’s Note: Originally published on June 15, 2017, this article was updated in May 2024.