Each year on or around November 15, communities across the United States host events to promote recycling and its corresponding benefits to the Earth, quality of life and the economy. There is much more to sustainability than using a paper straw for your iced coffee or cutting back on plastic bags at the grocery store — though both things help.

The day was started in 1997 by the National Recycling Coalition and it is now promoted and put on annually by Keep America Beautiful, a group of corporate and civic leaders working together to develop and promote recycling initiatives.

This year’s theme is “I want to be recycled” and the group is showcasing a handy online tool with a drop-down menu that instructs people how to recycle specific materials and items properly. It also provides facts and figures about why certain things should be recycled and a map of where you can bring said items in your area.

Recycling everyday items is a helpful way to keep our resources strong and our Earth healthy. There have also been some significant strides in the engineering world to turn something old into something new and innovative.

From plastic to prosthesis

An international research team found a way to solve two problems: turning excess plastic bottle waste into prosthesis for patients in underserved areas. The durable prosthesis are created by grinding plastic bottles into a polyester yarn that is then heated and modeled into limbs. Since the cost of materials is quite minimal, the overall cost of the prosthesis is significantly more affordable than traditional ones.

Prosthetic sockets made from polyester yarn sourced from ground up waste plastic bottles. Source: De Montfort University LeicesterProsthetic sockets made from polyester yarn sourced from ground up waste plastic bottles. Source: De Montfort University Leicester

Waste becomes a place to teach

Conceptos Plasticos, a Colombian company that turns discarded plastic into alternative construction materials, is working to address the classroom shortage in the African country of Côte d'Ivoire.

Plastic from old flip flops, tires and other discarded items will be melted into bricks that can be built into a structure for learning. The material has a longer life expectancy than tradition construction materials and is fire-proof and well insulated.

E-waste wins

Next year when tuning into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, take note of the medals the athletes win. They will be made from recycled electronic waste, otherwise known as e-waste. The Olympics organizing committee has been collecting e-waste since 2017 and they have amassed thousands of pounds of each material for medal creation.

Living in broken glass

Australian researchers have created a method for turning crushed waste glass into a sand alternative for construction. Sand is one of the world’s most widely used resources, but there is only so much of it. When a glass bottle breaks, it is no longer functional and it is not bio-degradable. However, in construction applications, it can function much the same way as sand.

Textiles transform

Clothing and textile waste is another growing issue. We are faced with an influx of waste as fast fashion stores crank out low-quality goods that are discarded after only a few uses.

Fabric waste is in the tons each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and that problem is growing. Innovators are working to give textile waste new life. For example, a research team in Finland recently developed a recycling technique that turns cotton-polyester clothing into lyocell-like fibers. With this discovery, clothing could be recycled multiple times, helping to keep it out of the landfill.

Plugging in for sustainable transport

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory recently collaborated with the Faraday Institute in a Nature review detailing the challenges and opportunities associated with recycling lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles (EVs). The research showed that the world needs to work on better solutions for dealing with the batteries in retired EVs.

Recycling also creates jobs. In 2016, the EPA released a study detailing the economic benefits of recycling. The study found that in a single year, recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for:

  • 757,000 jobs
  • $36.6 billion in wages
  • $6.7 billion in tax revenues

This equates to 1.57 jobs, $76,030 in wages and $14,101 in tax revenues for every 1,000 tons of material recycled.

Recycling can also cut down on energy use. While some energy is used to turn the waste item into a usable item, it results in less energy consumption than starting from scratch and harvesting brand new materials.

America Recycles Day is a way to raise awareness for how to recycle and cut down on the waste we produce. Recycling can be done by everyone and even small changes add up. Check out some tips here to learn how to reduce waste and consumption.