An Overview of Plastic Recycling

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Plastic recycling refers to the process of recovering waste or scrap plastic and reprocessing the materials into functional and useful products, sometimes in entirely different form from their previous state. The goal of recycling plastics is to reduce high rates of plastic pollution while putting less pressure on virgin materials to produce brand new plastic products, conserving energy and preventing plastics from getting into the oceans.

Recycling is one of the most efficient waste management options we have.

The Need for Plastic Recycling

Plastics are durable, lightweight and inexpensive materials that can readily be molded into various products which find uses in a wide assortment of applications. As a result, the production and uses of plastics have increased in last few decades. Every year, more than 100 million tons of plastics are manufactured across the globe. Around 200 billion pounds of new plastic material is thermoformed, foamed, laminated and extruded into millions of packages and products. Consequently, the need for reuse, recovery and the recycling of plastics takes on an enormous importance. The current worldwide plastic recycling industry is vast in scope. It presents both opportunities and challenges.

What Plastics Are Recyclable?

There are six common types of plastics. Following are some typical products you will find for each of plastic:

PS (Polystyrene) – Example: foam hot drink cups, plastic cutlery, containers, and yogurt.

PP (Polypropylene) – Example: lunch boxes, take-out food containers, ice cream containers.

LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) – Example: garbage bins and bags.

PVC (Plasticised Polyvinyl chloride or polyvinyl chloride)—Example: cordial, juice or squeeze bottles.

HDPE (High-density polyethylene) – Example: shampoo containers or milk bottles.

PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) – Example: fruit juice and soft drink bottles.

Currently, only PET, HDPE, and PVC plastic products are recycled under curbside recycling programs. So, PS, PP, and LDPE are not recycled because these plastic materials get stuck in the sorting equipment in recycling facilities causing it to break or stop. Lids and bottle tops cannot be recycled as well. “To recycle or Not to Recycle” is a big question when it comes to plastic recycling. Some plastic types are not recycled because they are not economically feasible to do so.

What Products Are Made from Recycled Plastic?

A wide range of goods can be fabricated with recycled plastics. Some articles include plastic bottles, carrier bags, and polyethylene bin liners. Other examples include fiber filling for sleeping bags and duvets, a variety of office accessories, ducting and flooring, drainage pipes, damp proof membrane, fleeces, seed trays, water butts, garden sheds, compost bins, fencing, garden furniture and decking. The list is exhaustive.

Some Quick Facts

  • Every hour, Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles, most of which are thrown away.
  • Every year, enough plastics are thrown away to circle the world four times.
  • Every year, Americans throw away around 25,000,000,000 Styrofoam coffee cups.
  • According to a report by ACC and APR, around 30.9 percent of plastic bottles are recycled.
  • Currently, 25 percent of plastic waste is recycled in Europe.
  • Recycling plastic takes 88 percent less energy than producing plastics from new raw materials.
  • Currently, around 50 percent of plastics we use are thrown away just after a single use.
  • Plastics account for 10 percent of total global waste generation.
  • Plastics take 500 to 1000 years to degrade.
  • The plastics that end up in the oceans break down into small pieces and every year around 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds get killed eating those small pieces of plastics.
  • The energy saved from recycling just a single plastic bottle can power a 100 watt light bulb for nearly an hour.
  • Currently, China alone imports around 56 percent of waste plastics generated worldwide.

The Plastic Recycling Process

The simplest of plastic recycling process involve collecting, sorting, shredding, washing, melting, and pelletizing. In fact, the actual processes vary based on plastic resin or type of plastic product.

Most plastic recycling facilities use the following two-step process:

Step One: Sorting plastics automatically or with a manual sort to make sure all the contaminants are removed from the plastic waste stream. 

Step Two: Melting down plastics directly into a new shape or shredding into flakes then melting down before being finally processed into granulates.

Setting Up a Plastic Recycling Business

Setting up a plastic recycling business includes steps common to the creation of other recycling operations. Some of these typical tasks include the undertaking of market research and identification of opportunities, preparing a complete business plan, applying for a business license and necessary permits, making a plastic waste collection plan, finding a site for recycling facility or plant, hiring staff, and buying recycling equipment. Such machinery includes automatic sorters, extruders, washers, shredders, balers, crushers, and solar dryers, 

As part of due diligence in exploring the potential for a plastic recycling business it is important to understand that because of low density and value, in conjunction with several technical problems, the opportunity surrounding plastic recycling business is often less lucrative than a recycling business in scrap metals.

Plastic Recycling Industry Associations

Plastic recycling industry associations are the bodies responsible for promoting plastic recycling, enabling members to build and maintain relationships among plastic recyclers, and lobbying with government and other organizations to help create the best possible environment for the plastic recycling industry.

The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR):  APR represents the international plastic recycling industry. It represents its members which include plastic recycling companies of all sizes, consumer plastic product companies, plastic recycling equipment manufacturers, testing laboratories and organizations that are committed to the advancement and success of plastic recycling. APR has multiple education programs to update its members about latest plastic recycling technologies and developments. It works to enhance quality and increase the supply of recycled products through technical resources, corporate training, design solutions and testing programs.

Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE): Established in 1996, PRE represents plastic recyclers in Europe. Currently, it has more than 115 members from all over Europe. In the first year of establishment, PRE members recycled just 200 000 tons of plastic waste, however now the current total exceeds 2.5 million tons. PRE arranges plastic recycling shows and annual meetings to enable its members to discuss the latest developments and challenges in the industry.

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI): ISRI represents over 1600 small to large multinational companies include manufacturers, processors, brokers and industrial consumers of many different types of scrap commodities. The associate members of this Washington DC-based association include equipment and key service providers to the scrap recycling industry.

The Latest Advances in Plastic Recycling

Ongoing innovations in recycling technologies have made the plastic recycling process easier and more cost effective. Such technologies include reliable detectors and sophisticated decision and recognition software that collectively enhance the productivity and accuracy of automatic sorting of plastics. For an example, FT-NIR detectors can run for up to 8,000 hours between faults in the detectors.

Another notable innovation in plastic recycling has been in finding higher value applications for recycled polymers in closed-loop recycling processes that can directly substitute virgin polymers. Since 2005, for example, PET sheets for thermoforming in the UK can contain 50 percent to 70 percent recycled PET through the use of A/B/A layer sheets.

Recently, some EU countries including Germany, Spain, Italy, Norway and Austria have begun collecting rigid packaging such as pots, tubs, and trays as well as limited amount of post-consumer flexible packaging for example wrappers and films, in addition to the collection of plastic bottle streams. Due to recent improvements in washing and sorting technologies, the recycling of these non-bottle plastic packaging has become feasible.

Challenges for the Plastic Recycling Industry

Plastic recycling faces many challenges, ranging from mixed plastics to hard-to-remove residues. The cost-effective and efficient recycling of the mixed plastic stream is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the recycling industry. Experts believe that designing plastic packaging and other plastic products with recycling in mind can play a significant role in facing this challenge.

Another major problem with plastic recycling is that during the collection and sorting stages of recycling flexible packaging, it gets really very problematic. It is also less economically viable to invest in the necessary collection and sorting facilities for plastic bags and films. Most material recovery facilities and local authorities do not actively collect post-consumer flexible packaging due to the deficiencies in the equipment that can efficiently and easily separate them. Post-consumer film wastes manifest a very poor ratio of surface area to contamination and thus require extensive treatment.

A critical challenge for the industry is that only 30 percent to 40 percent of scrap plastic is recovered for reuse or recycling. The plastic industry continues to raise awareness and undertakes various outreach programs to try to improve recovery.

Plastic Recycling Laws

The recycling of plastic bottles has been made mandatory in several U.S. states including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  Please follow the respective links to find the detailed of plastic recycling laws in each state.

A Final Note

Recycling is critical to effective end-of-life plastic management. Increasing recycling rates have resulted from greater public awareness and increased the effectiveness of recycling operations. The trends are expected to continue, but continued investment in research and development will be fundamental to overcoming technical challenges.

Recycling of a greater range of post-consumer plastic products and packaging will further enable the recycling industry to increase the overall recycling rates and divert more end-of-life plastic wastes from landfills. To improve the environmental performance of the polymer industry, it is important to increase the use and specification of recycled grades as a replacement for virgin plastics.