From the curbside bin to a brand new item: We tracked Raleigh’s recycling process

To fully understand the recycling process in Raleigh, we followed plastic and glass materials over the course of about a month, to learn what happens to those items and what they become.

For glass and plastic, their journeys from curbside materials to brand-new items are done within a 150-mile radius of the City of Oaks.

The majority of Raleigh’s plastic items are melted down and spun into yarn in Yadkinville, about 30 miles west of Winston-Salem. (Fun fact: UNC-Chapel Hill uses this yarn in athletic apparel and graduation robes, a university spokesperson told us.) Raleigh’s glass is shipped to a manufacturing facility in Wilson that turns it into new bottles and containers.

Aside from keeping materials out of the landfill, recycling — when done properly — benefits the local economy and offers private sector jobs to more than 15,000 people across the state, according to the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Here’s Raleigh’s step-by-step recycling process.

Curbside recycling in Raleigh

It all starts with that big blue (or small green) bin at the end of your driveway. The glass salsa jar, plastic laundry detergent container and paper junk mail you tossed last week actually do become new items.

The industry term for your mish-mosh of items in your recycling bin is “single-stream recycling,” as lots of cardboard, plastic, aluminum, glass, steel and paper items begin their journey through the recycling process as a single stream of mixed recyclable materials.

This doesn’t mean you should throw all your waste — recyclable or not — into your bin, believing that the recyclable items will be pulled out. To keep the recycling process running smoothly, Raleigh’s recycling people want to emphasize bin-acceptable items.

“Yes, you should recycle, but you need to make sure you’re recycling right,” said Patrick McDonald, a senior manager at Sonoco Recycling in Raleigh.

For more instructions about recycling in Raleigh, including a comprehensive list of acceptable materials, visit and search “Items you can recycle list.” For more information, call 919-996-3245.

Here’s what we learned about the process in Raleigh.

Recycling sorting starts at Sonoco

Sonoco, a recycling plant located in Raleigh, receives materials from all of the city’s residential bins, along with recycling from the city of Durham, Fuquay-Varina and some smaller community drop-off centers.

Sonoco is a “material recovery facility,” sometimes called MRF (and pronounced “murph”). It processes several hundred tons of material per day, McDonald said.

Man + machine: At Sonoco, industrial machines sort and distribute recyclable materials into their separate parts, putting, for example, aluminum with aluminum, and paper with paper. Manual sorters double-check the process, catching what the machines missed and watching out for red-flag items, such as lithium-ion batteries and exceptionally large items that can shut down the machinery.

“As automated as this process is, our people take on a quality control role to make sure the equipment and machines are looking at the right materials and putting them on the right lines. It’s not going to be 100% accurate,” McDonald said.

To do this, optical sorting technology is employed, allowing cameras and lasers to detect recyclable materials and get the items to the correct location in the plant. The lightning-fast machine processes about a thousand items per minute, sending them on the correct conveyor belt to eventually wind up in their like-item piles.

The plant’s current optical sorting technology does not correctly capture plastic lids, such as the ones topping sour cream or cream cheese containers. The city of Raleigh’s website tells recyclers to discard these with trash, but McDonald says a new optical sorting machine that can capture and correctly sort these lids will soon be installed. Human sorters currently separate these plastic lids to ensure they wind up in their correct plastic category.

Bales of cleaned and sorted plastic, aluminum, paper products and more are loaded into trucks and shipped to their next destination.

Glass is shipped loose in dump trucks.

Recycling Raleigh glass with Strategic Materials

Sonoco sends glass products to Strategic Materials, a glass processing company in Wilson, about 40 minutes east of Raleigh, nearly every day. Strategic Materials (commonly referred to as SMI Wilson) extracts, cleans, breaks and sorts the glass so the shards can be sent off to become a new item.

Ardagh Glass Packaging, a manufacturing facility also located in Wilson, melts down the glass in an industrial furnace and molds it into new items like jars and bottles. The glass can also be turned into highway paint, fiberglass, paint fillers and more.

“It’s possible to throw a glass item, like a pickle jar or a beer bottle, in your recycling bin, and a new product made from that same glass can be on a supermarket shelf within 30 days,” said Kenton Moyer, plant manager at SMI Wilson.

Recycling glass also helps the environment.

“Not only does recycling glass reduce waste to landfills, it also helps glass manufacturers reduce emissions into the environment,” Alex Winters, chief sustainability officer for Ardagh Glass Packaging, wrote in an email to The News & Observer. “Using recycled glass reduces our energy requirements and our need for virgin, raw materials.”

Fun fact: Unlike plastic and paper, glass can be recycled an infinite amount of times without losing the integrity of the product.

Unifi turns recycled plastic from Raleigh into yarn

Unifi Manufacturing Inc. is a Greensboro-based recycling company with multiple North Carolina operations that process and manufacture plastic items to turn them into synthetic, recycled performance fibers. The company recycles landfill-bound plastic waste, including bales of Sonoco’s plastic, and turns them into yarn.

Unifi has a plastic processing center in Reidsville. A second Unifi location in Yadkinville turns the plastic into yarn.

“‘Recycled’ often carries a stigma that suggests it’s inferior, but that is not the case when done right,” said Ken Prevette, procurement manager at Unifi.

“Recycling is needed for the betterment of the environment. While it’s not perfect, we are working to do the best we can, given the financial impacts and environmental cost to the future of the earth,” Prevette said.

That three-arrow recycling triangle you see stamped into plastic and other recyclable material helps facilities like Unifi know how to best separate plastics to turn them into their new items. One kind of plastic — PET (pronounced “P.E.T.” and not “pet”) — is the most widely used out of the seven plastic recycling codes.

Take a plastic bottle of Cheerwine, for example. The clear, curved plastic is made of PET, while the cap is made of PP, another of the seven recycle codes. These plastics have different melt temperatures and need to be separated by Unifi’s machines in the recycling process.

While bottle caps and other kinds of plastic (such as shrink wrap, for example) can be recycled, Unifi can only turn PET into that synthetic yarn, which can eventually become clothing, carpets and much more.

Along with the recycled material Unifi receives from Sonoco (which is funneled from Raleigh, Fuquay-Varina and the city of Durham), the recycling plant receives recycled plastic from across the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

This is the journey a bottle made of PET plastic goes through when recycled in Raleigh:

• Step 1: The plastic bottle, including the cap, is thrown into Raleigh’s curbside recycling bins by residents.

• Step 2: Recycling trucks take the single-stream mixed recyclable materials to Sonoco, a recycling plant located in Raleigh.

• Step 3: Materials are machine- and hand-sorted at Sonoco, separating them into the same materials. Plastic bottles are mostly made of PET plastic, which is separated from other kinds of plastic.

• Step 4: Sonoco bales the PET plastic into a cube. While imperfect, the bale is mostly made of PET plastic.

• Step 5: Sonoco loads the bales of PET plastic onto a truck. They are transported to Unifi Reidsville’s bottle processing plant about 90 minutes northwest of Raleigh.

• Step 6: At Unifi Reidsville, the PET plastic is re-sorted and cleaned. The PET plastic is then ground into flakes, which are roughly the size of a fingernail. The material of the bottle (PET plastic) is separated from the material of the cap (PP plastic).

• Step 7: Unifi Reidsville packages and sends the flakes to Unifi Yadkinville, a plastic recycling plant that turns the PET flake into yarn. Unifi Yadkinville is about 70 minutes southwest of Reidsville, or two hours west of Raleigh.

• Step 8: Unifi Yadkinville melts the PET flake into resin, the raw material for yarn.

• Step 9: Unifi Yadkinville spins, twists and heat-sets the melted resin, turning it into recycled polyester yarn. Unifi’s brand of yarn is called REPREVE.

• Step 10: Unifi Yadkinville ships the yarn back to Unifi Reidsville’s package dyeing facility, where the yarn is dyed a variety of colors — like Carolina blue.

• Step 11: Unifi sells their REPREVE yarn to a variety of textile producers, some of whose product is used by UNC-Chapel Hill, right back here in the Triangle. The clients weave the yarn into items like clothing, carpet and more. UNC-Chapel Hill uses REPREVE yarn in sports apparel and graduation robes.