But as for the actual recycling process...
1. First, after you put your recylables out on the curb, your trash collection service will come pick them up and sell them to a Materials Recovery Facility. Here the items are sorted by material through a variety of means. I have some basics of the MRF process here, but for a better, more detailed description watch the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CFE5tD1CCI
- heavier plastics, glass, and metals are separated from the lighter paper products by gravity
- metals are separated using strong magnets
- plastics and glass are separated by weight
- glass is sorted by color and broken into pieces, called "cullet"
- plastics are sorted by scanners, which separate them based on type and color
- often in between steps, human workers mechanically separate out materials the machines might have missed
3. Some of these materials are down-cycled, meaning they are remade into weaker or less valuable materials. For example, paper is made of tree fibers, and after being ground up for recycling, these fibers are shorter, and the resulting recycled paper is weaker and of a lower quality than the original product. Eventually, the paper reaches a point where it can no longer be recycled and is sent to the landfill. This is why it's so imported to reduce and reuse before you put something out for recycling.
4. To find out more information about what happens to specific materials after beign collected, visit: http://pages.uoregon.edu/recycle/after_collection.html