recycled plastic


What really happens to the plastic you throw away

We’ve all been told that we should recycle plastic bottles and containers. But what actually happens to the plastic if we just throw it away? Emma Bryce traces the life cycles of three different plastic bottles, shedding light on the dangers these disposables present to our world.

View full lesson:

Lesson by Emma Bryce, animation by Sharon Colman.

By: TED-Ed.


Studio KCA won an AIA New York Chapter competition to build their “Head in the Clouds” installation on New York’s Governors Island. The work features 53,780 used plastic bottles and jugs, approximately the number of empties the city discards in a single hour. Photography by Chuck Choi.

The Life Cycle of a Plastic Bottle

We’ve all been told that we should recycle plastic bottles and containers. But what actually happens to the plastic if we just throw it away? Here are the life cycles of three different plastic bottles.

Bottle One, like hundreds of millions of tons of its plastic brethren, ends up in a landfill. This huge dump expands each day, as more trash moves in and continues to take up space. 

As plastics sit there being compressed, rainwater flows through the waste and absorbs the water soluble compounds it contains, and some of those are highly toxic. Together they create a harmful stew called “leachate”, which can move into groundwater, soil, and streams, poisoning ecosystems and harming wildlife. It can take Bottle One an agonizing 1,000 years to decompose.

Bottle Two floats on a trickle that reaches a stream, a stream that flows into a river, and a river that reaches the ocean. After months lost at sea, it’s slowly drawn into a massive vortex, where trash accumulates - place known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” This is one of five plastic filled gyres in the worlds seas. 

Some animals mistake the brightly colored plastic bits for food. Plastic makes them feel full when they’re not, so they starve to death, passing the toxins from the plastic up the food chain, eventually to us.

Bottle Three, on the other hand, is recycled. It’s taken away on a truck to a plant, where it and its companions are squeezed flat and compressed into a block. The blocks are shredded into tiny pieces, which are washed and melted, so they become the raw materials that can be used again. Bottle Three is ready to be reborn, as something new.

So, what can you do? First - reduce your use of plastic altogether! And when you do find yourself needing to buy a bottle, don’t forget to recycle it. You’ll be doing Planet Earth a great, big favor.

From the TED-Ed Lesson What really happens to the plastic you throw away - Emma Bryce

Animation by Sharon Colman Graham

16 simple ways to reduce plastic waste

Plastic is found in virtually everything. Your food is packaged in it, phones are made from it, and you might even chew on it in the form of gum. While most plastics are touted as recyclable, the reality is that they’re “downcycled.” A plastic milk carton can never be recycled into another carton.

Of the 30 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2009, only 7 percent was recovered for recycling. This plastic waste ends up in landfills, beaches, rivers and oceans and contributes to such devastating problems as the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.

Musician Pharrell Williams has worked with Dutch fashion brand G-Star Raw to create a denim collection made from waste plastic scooped up from the ocean.

G-Star RAW made the garments in the RAW for the Ocean collection from materials created by Bionic Yarn, which transforms recycled plastic into textiles.

More: Pharrell Williams and G-Star RAW transform ocean plastic into denim

How To Make A 2-Liter Bottle Planter

1. Puncture 3/8" holes every inch or so around the top of the bottle.

2. Cut your 2 liter bottle in half.

3. Cut two strips of wicking fabric or oil lamp wicks approx. 4"+ long or so (and 1"+ wide, then roll if using fabric such as pellon thermolam plus) and insert into the neck of the top half.

4. Hold the wicking pieces in place and turn the top half upside down (using the cap or not is optional, without the cap the soil holds the wicking material in place, with the cap, cut a hole in the cap large enough for the wicking materials to fit and be held comfortably and the cap can aid in retaining the soil as well), filling with about 3 cups of damp, soil-less potting mix (typically peat, perlite and ceramic spheres) mixed with a handful of organic fertilizer. The soil should fill the bottle without falling through the openings and should hold the wicks in place.

5. Add water to the lower half - typically just enough to fill past the camfer.

6. Set the upper half into the lower and allow to fit together. The wicks will aid in drawing water up into the soil as it dries. Refill the base by removing the upper half as it empties.

7. Plant a seed(s) or seedling(s). Water lightly from the top just once to settle the seeds/seedlings and soil in the upper half.


The upcycled statement necklace I featured on Earth Day is now available in the Lost Cause Revival Etsy shop! I created it from a few brightly colored gift cards to make a fun, sustainable necklace perfect for spring :)

Check it out to read more about my creative process!


Happy Earth Day!

1. 20+ Ways to Celebrate Earth Day.

2. Use Coffee Grounds as a Body Scrub. 3 More Ways to Recycle Coffee Grounds From Your Coffee Maker.

3. 5+ Ways to Reuse Tea Bags.

4. Make a Planter out of an Old Milk Jug.

5. 5 Ways to Recycle Eggshells in Gardening Activities.

6. Make a Wine Bottle Plant Waterer. And Make a Bathmat (or Corkboard) from Corks.

7. Make a Disco Ball with CDs. Another 5+ Ways to Reuse Styrofoam.

8. 10+ Ways to Recycle Old Plastic Bags. 15+ Ways to Reuse Empty Pill Bottles.

9. 50+ Ways to Reuse Old Toothbrushes.

10. 5+ Ways to Recycle Old Pantyhose. And 30+ Ways to Recycle Your Socks.

11. 10+ Ways to Use Old Tennis Balls.

12. 15+ Ways to Reuse Silica Gel.

Entrepreneur Spotlight: 

The entrepreneurs behind the schoolbag that transforms into a light at night

When South African childhood friends and later entrepreneurs Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane finished high school, they knew they wanted to start something that impacted young people and underprivileged communities. At age 18, they founded Rethaka, a social enterprise they hoped would do just that, although it would be two years before they figured out how. 

Repurpose Schoolbags is an environmentally-friendly innovation made from ‘upcycled’ plastic shopping bags with built-in solar technology that charges up during the day and transforms into a light at night. The initiative targets school children in underprivileged communities and looks at addressing a number of problems.

Firstly, the bags allow them to study after dark in homes without electricity. Secondly, the bags are designed with reflective material, so that children are visible to traffic during their walk to and from school.

The production of Repurpose Schoolbags also involves the collection and recycling of plastic bags that typically litter the South African landscape.

Clumps of human hair are recycled as stuffing for two plastic pouffes by Swedish furniture and product designer Ola Giertz. The pouffes are made from recycled plastic bottles and filled with hair swept up from the floor of a salon, which would otherwise be thrown away and burnt. The design was developed for Studio Västra Sandgatan, a salon in Helsingborg, Sweden, using hair from their customers.

(via The Bare Hair Project by Ola Giertz - Dezeen)