How Cities Turn Recycled Materials Into Cool Stuff

By: Jane Irene Kelly

What exactly happens to all of the plastic that’s recycled? Some of it turns into fashion, or goes back into consumer products like cereal boxes or aluminum cans. But around the country, local officials are also taking steps to repurpose plastic and improve infrastructure at the same time. Take a look at a few of those innovative projects and what you can do to help!

Greening the Parks

After Athens, Ohio, instituted a smoking ban in certain areas of the city, it became littered with cigarette butts concentrated on the outskirts of the ban zones. To combat the problem, the city installed specially designed boxes to collect and recycle them. The result? People actually started using them to discard their cigarette butts. Once collected, the butts were cleaned to isolate the cellulose acetate in the filter. Recycling company Terracycle then melted the material down, and transformed it into sustainably-produced benches.

Recycled materials also took on an entirely new shape in Southington, Conn., where Kelley Elementary School was among the winners of a nationwide contest for a new playground made entirely of recycled dental supplies. Colgate sponsored the contest to encourage the recycling of toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes and floss, so communities collected their own recyclable items from home and gathered materials from local dental offices.

And, in cities around the country, contact lens cases are being recycled into picnic tables and other park infrastructure, thanks to the ONE by ONE recycling program launched by Bausch + Lomb. According to a recent study, 20 percent of consumers in the United States flush their contact lens waste down the drain, contributing to over three billion contact lenses in the environment.

What You Can Do to Help: Recycle household plastics, no matter how small. Though it may seem like something as tiny as a contact lens or a dental floss container won’t hurt the environment, these add up quickly. Take time to think about whether an item you’re throwing away contains plastic, and if it does, toss it into a recycling bin.

In some cases—like with contact lenses—you may need to take a few extra steps to mail them to a responsible recycler, since they’re often filtered out at standard recycling facilities because of their small size. But rest assured, the environment will thank you for the extra effort.

Revolutionary Roads

Recycled materials are even being used to repair and rebuild roads. A company called TechniSoil Industrial, for example, developed a liquid plastic for repaving roads, and the material is eight to 16 times more durable than traditional road materials. TechniSoil’s system, in addition to giving new life to recycled plastic bottles, also keeps milled asphalt from out of waste piles.

“Trillions of dollars worth of aggregate is used in roads. Why throw it away, or create new material, when you can recycle the old material again and again?” asks Weaver, noting that rock used in construction aggregate is itself becoming a limited resource. TechniSoil has already conducted pilot projects in Russia, the Philippines and Qatar, and is now searching for a commercial partner to help it roll out its road repaving system throughout the United States.

And did you know that roof shingles made from asphalt can be recycled and used for roads, too? In fact, states and local agencies around the United States already use recycled asphalt shingles (RAS) on county, city and state roads. The Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association also has a helpful FAQ for recycling asphalt shingles, along with tips for finding a recycler in your area.

What You Can Do to Help: “Encourage your local government to start using products with recycled content,” Weaver says, adding that more than 100 cities on the West Coast now use TechniSoil’s TrowelPave for pothole repairs.

Recycled Art

Who says garbage can’t be beautiful? The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Nevada Recycles Program just announced the winners of its End Plastic Pollution art competition, for which participants were required to create art pieces out of used and discarded plastic materials. The winning art pieces will go on display in winners’ hometowns as inspiration for local residents to recycle.

But Nevada isn’t the only state to inspire creativity with recycled materials. In Louisiana, the Green Project’s Salvations Design Competition is now underway to encourage New Orleans residents to create functional art, which will eventually be auctioned off with proceeds going to the Green Project, which promotes the creative reuse of materials.

What You Can Do to Help: Host an art competition to encourage your neighbors to do something better with their plastic than toss it in the trash, or set an example for your community and create some recycled decor of your own.

It can be a creative way to spruce up dreary area in your local park, and raise awareness about the importance of recycling.

Photo: Olivia Bauso