Many kinds of manufacturers buy recycled plastic pellets to make products. Over the past few years, Ms. Dunbar says, a growing percentage of processed soda bottles - 36 percent in 2003 - are sold overseas, especially to Asia. Manufacturers use recycled plastic to make fiber for clothing and other products that can then be sold worldwide. Your recycled bottles could even end up in products shipped back to America, completing the circle.
Some companies make building materials from recycled milk jugs. "We get bales of milk jugs. Then we sort, grind, and wash them until they're flakes," says vice president Nathan Kalenich, vice president of US Plastic Lumber Corp. in Chicago. "We put it into machines, [melt it], add color and other stuff, then we ball it up and push it through like a big, grown-up Play-Doh extruder."
The resulting material ends up as patio decks, park benches, and even railroad ties. The company has supplied lumber to build the first recycled-plastic bridge strong enough to hold cars. The bridge is 30-feet long and located in New Baltimore, N.Y. It contains 68,000 recycled milk jugs that are mixed with fiberglass.
Companies usually pay less for recycled plastic than for new materials, but that's not the only reason they use it. It's also better for the planet because it saves resources.
"There is plenty of [old] plastic available; there is no need to use new," says Mary Jarrett, president of Amazing Recycled in Denver. In fact, Americans toss out 14.4 million tons of plastic every year, according to the Plastics Museum in Leominster, Mass.
Ms. Jarrett's company makes yo-yos from recycled yogurt cups, a Fiesta Flyer disc from one-gallon milk jugs, and even T-shirts from green one-liter soda bottles.
The process at Amazing Recycled is different from that at the lumber company.
"We melt [the plastic] and whip it with an electric mixer," Jarrett says. "It becomes a foam that can be spun into fibers. When you stretch the green plastic really thin, it becomes almost clear. Then we mix it with cotton to make a white T-shirt that's 50 percent cotton, 50 percent soda bottles."