The Ultimate Plastic Recycling Breakdown

Plastic was hailed as the wonder product of the 20th century, but the toxic waste it has produced has now become a major threat to our environment. Currently, there is over 35 million tons of plastic pollution produced all over the world. It is now time for us to give it back to nature for sustainability, and the only way to do it is to recycle it. Recycling will reduce plastic pollution and put less pressure on virgin materials for new productions. The goal here is to conserve resources while diverting plastics from landfills and oceans.

What is Plastic Recycling?

Plastic recycling typically involves recovering scrapes or waste plastic and reprocessing them into new, useful products that are different from their original form. Processing facilities will melt and cast the used plastic materials into new products. Most recycled plastics can be recycled only once.  

Plastic Recycling: processes and benefits

Different processes of Plastic Recycling

Plastic recycling is not that simple. It goes through five different processes before it is deemed suitable for reusing it to make new plastic products.

  1. Collection: Here, used and discarded plastic waste is collected from the garbage areas and transported to another place to be sorted.
  2. Sorting: Every item of plastic is separated based on the make and type.
  3. Shredding: This is basically shredding the plastic into small pellets.
  4. Identification and Separation: The pellets are now properly tested to ascertain the class and quality.
  5. Compounding: This step involves melting the tiny pellets for making new plastic products.

How is Plastic Recycling beneficial?

Did you know that removing one ton of plastic waste clears up about 7.5 cubic yards of landfill space? We all know recycling is aimed at environmental conservation. Plastic is a serious environmental concern because it is non-biodegradable and it can stay intact for as long as 1,000 years before it can finally decompose.

Here are a few of the many benefits of plastic recycling:

  • We all know petroleum is a scarce resource and it takes a lot of petroleum to make new plastic products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 3.8 barrels of crude oil will be saved by recycling one ton of used plastic.
  • By reducing our petroleum consumption, we also reduce the emission of greenhouse gases as it is a by-product of burning petroleum. Since recycling plastic takes up fewer fossil fuels and energy, it reduces greenhouse gas emission like carbon dioxide. (Want to do your part? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average family can help reduce their total carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 340 pounds every year simply by recycling their household plastic ).
  • A major environmental benefit of recycling plastic waste is that it saves aquatic creatures, birds and animals that die of plastic ingestion. There are currently over 51 trillion pieces of plastic waste in our oceans. Plastic constitutes 80% of litter in the ocean.
  • There are people who make a living from plastic collection and recycling business. In the long run, you are helping to improve the economy and boost the standard of living.

Plastic Recycling process: step by step

Generally, the process for recycling plastic remains the same for most recycling facilities. In certain situations, some steps can be omitted or combined. Let’s delve deep into the five most common processes:

1.    Collection

This is the first step in the process of recycling plastic, and it involves collecting plastic materials that are to be recycled. This step depends heavily on restaurants,

assorted-plastic-bottle-collection
assorted plastic bottles waiting for collection

businesses and the people, in general, to dispose of their plastic waste responsibly. If you dispose of your plastic waste in normal garbage bins, it will not be collected which is why it is vital to separate plastic waste from common waste.

Governments should take the initiative to set up recycling collection systems that can go to residential homes and businesses to collect plastic scraps. Another alternative is to build local collection points which should be easy for the residents to access. The trick is to make it convenient and easy for people to dispose of their plastic waste easily which is vital in promoting plastic recycling.

Plastic products are available in different forms like bottles, plastic packaging, shopping bags, jars, containers, big industrial plastics etc. Tons and tons of these plastic scraps are collected from habitats and stored in large collecting yards. These scraps are then packed and transported to large plastic processing centers.

Not many developing countries can recycle plastic which means plastic waste is a major global problem.

2.    Sorting

man-filtering-plastic-bottle-caps-by-color
a worker sorting plastic bottle caps by color

Once the plastic scrapes are taken to the recycling facility, it is then sorted according to the color and resin content. Normally each processing facility has its own way of sorting the plastics based on the kind of final product they are looking to produce. They use specially designed machines for this.

Here are some common factors that determine how the plastic wastes are sorted:

  • Type of plastic material
  • Color
  • Make of the plastic

This is a very important step because different types of plastic scrapes require different methods of processing and not all recycling facilities are equipped to process all types of plastics. If the wrong plastic type is processed at the wrong facility, it will reduce the efficiency of the process and the entire batch needs to be sent back to be sorted again.

This is also the step where they eliminate all contaminates.

3.    Shredding

This is where the plastic is granulated or shredded into tiny flakes. By shredding, it increases the surface area of the plastic and makes it easier to reshape and process the plastic.

During this process, the recycling facilities remove all contaminants for one last time. They often perform this with magnets or metal detectors to remove any metal content in the mix.

4.    Identification and Separation

Once shredded, the plastics are tested for their class and quality. The first quality test is the density of the plastic this is done by simply floating the plastic particles in a large tank of water. The materials with high density will sink while those with lower density will float.

The next thing they determine is air classification. This is the official term they use to determine the thinness or thickness of a particle. They drop the plastic particles inside a wind tunnel where the smaller shreds fly up, and the bigger shreds remain at the bottom.

The other two tests commonly conducted on these plastics are color and melting point. They do this by collecting the samples and then analyzing each batch of the plastic particles.

5.    Compounding

This is the most exciting part. This is where the plastic scrapes are finally made into the recycled plastic, ready to be used and redesigned into new products. Here the tiny shreds are melted and then compressed into small pellets called nurdles.

Contrary to what most people think, recycled plastic is hardly redesigned into its previous form. These pellets are transported to different plastic manufacturing companies to be made into useful plastic products.

Not all plastic recycling facilities can perform all these processes which is why the plastic waste may be transported from one plant to another until it reaches the final state where it can be reused to make brand new products again.

The entire process is very energy intensive and it would do us and the environment a favour if we minimize our use of plastic in the first place.

Types of Plastics and their recycle codes

When you understand the different types of plastics, you will be able to make more informed decisions about plastic waste. The composition for most plastic materials belongs to one of 6 types of resins as identified under the Resin Identification Code (RIC), also known as resin identification number. This is a worldwide coding system for the plastic resin to identify the resin content in all plastic products.

When plastic products are manufactured, it is imprinted with a resin code symbol – a number enclosed on all sides by “chasing arrows”. Resin numbers 1-6 refer to six common types of resins while #7 refers to all other materials that are not identified by the other 6 resin types. RIC was created in 1988 by the Plastics Industry Trade Association (SPI) in order to aid the recycling programs in identifying the resin type in plastic waste. 

This code is not to be misunderstood as a symbol that says the plastic is recyclable. It is only to indicate the general type of chemical compound that is used to make the product.

Which Plastics are recyclable?

You may have noticed the recycling codes on plastic products that you use every day. This “resin identification coding system” gives an indication of the type of plastic used to make the product and is a guide to recycling facilities. Let me break down the codes into non-industry, simple terms for you. Once you understand what this means, it will help you make a better decision on what to purchase and how to dispose of them responsibly. In brief:

Recycling numberImagePolymerCommon usesPropertiesOutput after recyclingRecyclable
#1alternative-symbol-for-resin-code-1-PETEPolyethylene TerephthalateSoft, fizzy drink bottles, water bottles, mouthwash, beer, salad dressing, ketchup, tubs, pots, food jars and oven-ready trays.PET is ideal for serving beverages due to its moisture barrier property. This clear plastic with a smooth surface is designed for high impact. You can throw it, drop it or roll it, this plastic will hold its shape and stay intact.Recycled PET can be reused for making detergent bottles, carpeting, lumber for decking outdoors and even clothes.Yes; Widely recycled
#2alternative-symbol-for-resin-code-2-HDPEHigh-density PolyethyleneYou will find it on shopping bags, soda and water bottles, cereal box liners, toys, picnic ware, cable insulation, household and kitchenware, shampoo, laundry, shipping containers, shampoo, laundry, dish and detergent bottles.This plastic is translucent and stiff, creating a strong barrier for high temperatures and does not crack. It is chemical resistant, making it ideal for detergents and bleaches.Recycled HDPE can be reused to make bottles for shampoos, motor oil or detergent, curbside recycling trash bins, buckets and crates, plastic lumber, etc.Yes; Widely recycled
#3alternative-symbol-for-resin-code-3-PVCPolyvinyl ChlorideCredit cards, synthetic leather, cling film, packaging, fashion and footwear, seat coverings and other automotive interiors, stationery, roofing membranes, resilient flooring, wire and cable insulation, storage bags for blood, medical devices, water service pipe, drainage pipe and window frames.PVC is very strong and can withstand high impact. Besides its clarity, it is resistant to chemicals, oil and grease. It has been named as the “poison plastic” due to the fact that it contains several toxins, making it harmful for living beings and the environment.Uses for Recycled PVC: Recycled PVC is reused to make resilient and flexible goods like garden hoses, mud flaps, traffic cones, floor tiles, decking, plumbing pipe, etc.Often not recyclable as a result of chemical properties. Check with your local recycling.
#4alternative-symbol-for-resin-code-4-LDPEdensity PolyethyleneToys, carrier bags, squeeze toys, gas and water pipes, general packaging, heavy-duty sacks, chemical tank linings, high-frequency insulation, etc.LDPE plastic is tough, transparent and flexible, making it ideal for packaging, film, and in products that need heat sealing. This plastic is resistant to vegetable oils, bases and acids.Recycled LDPE is reused for making shipping envelopes, trash bags, film and sheeting, etc.No; Fails under stress, making it difficult to recycle.
#5alternative-symbol-for-resin-code-5-OTHERPolypropyleneMedicine bottles, margarine, yogurt tubs, reusable plastic containers like Tupperware, syrup and ketchup bottles, bottle caps, etc.PP plastics are strong materials with high melting point and chemical resistance. It is ideal for making packaging which requires high durability like reusable food containers.Recycled PP often finds their way into products like mixing bowls, shipping lappets, storage bins, ice scrappers and oil funnels, automotive battery cases, watering cans and shovels, cutting boards and spatulas.Often not recyclable; Check with your local recycler.
#6alternative-symbol-for-resin-code-6-PSPolystyrenePlates, lids, cups and cutlery, takeout containers, protective packaging, poultry and meat trays, compact disc cases, packing peanuts, aspirin bottles, building insulation, etc.PP plastic is versatile and can be used in both rigid forms and foam. As a foam, 97 % of it is air and lightweight. General purpose PP plastic is brittle, hard and clear. It is perfect for products with a short shelf life because it has good moisture properties. It is ideal for insulation purposes because of its low thermal conductivity.
Many BPA products belong to this category, meaning it should be avoided for food products. Once they are created, it is very difficult to break down these plastics, making it almost impossible to recycle.
Uses for Recycled PS: Recycled PS often finds its way into products like moldings, pictures and home décor, egg cartons, insulation, protective foam packaging, etc.No; Rarely recycled; Check with your local recycler.
#7alternative-symbol-for-resin-code-7-OTHER#7 is a catch-all for plastics like polylactide, polycarbonate, acrylonitrite butadiene, acrylic, fiberglass, styrene, nylon, etc.Three to five-gallon reusable water bottles, ketchup and some citrus bottles, custom packaging, barrier layers and oven-baking bags, any other plastic products that do not belong to plastic categories 1 to 6.This category includes several plastic varieties that were invented after 1987. It could contain any material from Polycarbonates to Bisphenol A (which is considered as highly dangerous). Just to be safe, avoid using category 7 plastics to store food or any consumable. Use it at your own risk.Plastic lumber (used commonly in park benches, molding and outdoor decks)No; Diverse materials, posing a high risk of contamination.

Further readings:

Plastics that are not acceptable for recycling

Plastic #4 LDPE (Low-density Polyethylene)

LDPE plastic provides decreased strength and increased pliability which makes it an ideal choice for making packagings like milk cartons and plastic bags. Basically, any kind of plastic that is very soft and thin is made from Low Density Polyethylene.

Products that are made from recycled LDPE are not as rigid or hard as compared to products that are made from recycled HDPE. You can reuse your LDPE plastics, but you cannot always recycle it though practices are changing these days.

Once it is heated, the LDPE plastic forms irreversible cross-links or chemical bonds with each other, and it makes it near impossible for them to be remolded into new products. On the flip side, LDP is safe for human use compared to some of the other plastics out there because the cross-linking eliminates any risk of the product remelting and contaminating the food when it is exposed to heat.

Plastic #6 PS (polystyrene)

Polystyrene is ultra-light and structurally weak which makes it break up easily and disperse readily everywhere. Beaches in all parts of the world have shreds and pieces of polystyrene strewn at the shores. Marine species commonly ingest this plastic which affects their health and even leads to death.

Polystyrene also leaches styrene, a human carcinogen, into food items especially when it is heated in the microwave. Many human reproductive system and health dysfunctions have been traced back to polystyrene.

Not a lot of recycling services are available for polystyrene products. Many curbside garbage collection services do not accept polystyrene. This is the reason why it accounts for a large landfill material. Although there is specialized technology to recycle polystyrene, there is little to no market for recycling it.

Consumers are now more aware and have started reusing it more often. It may be difficult for you to find a PS recycler, but there are many shipping services that are more than happy to receive used foam packing chips.

Remember to avoid polystyrene wherever possible.

Plastic #7 Other

BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN

This is the plastic that has parents worried after recent studies revealed that there is a high chance of potential chemical leaching into consumables (food and drinks) packed in polycarbonate containers which are made from BPA (Bisphenol A). It is also known as an endocrine disruptor and is a xenoestrogen.

Polycarbonate food containers are commonly made using BPA and are often marked as “PC” at the bottom. Some of the polycarbonate water bottles are actually advertised as ‘non-leaching’ to minimize the plastic odor or taste. But there is always the possibility of trace amounts of the BPA transferring from the containers to the food if you use hot liquids.

The new generation compostable plastics are now on the run to replace polycarbonates. These plastics are made from bio-based polymers such as corn starch. It is also a part of #7 and can be quite confusing to consumers. You will find the “PLA” initials at the bottom of the compostable plastics. Some even say “compostable”.

#7 plastics are not recyclable unless it has the compostable coding PLA. Always throw PLA coded plastics in the compost, not the recycle trash bin because PLA plastics are not recyclable.

Challenges faced by the Plastic recycling industry

From hard-to-remove residues to mixed plastics, the plastic recycling industry faces several challenges. But perhaps the biggest challenge that the recycling industry faces is the efficient and cost-effective recycling of the stream of mixed plastics. By designing plastic products and plastic packaging with recycling in mind, it can help ease the problem to a certain extent.

Another big problem is recovering and recycling post-consumer flexible packaging. Not a lot of the local authorities and material recovery facilities collect such plastic because of lack of proper equipment designed to easily and efficiently separate them.

Marine plastic pollution is growing at an alarming rate and is a major global concern. According to the World Economic Forum, 8 million tons of plastic is entering the water annually with approximately 150 million tons already floating in the oceans.

Recycling rates across the Globe

According to The Economist, only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled.

According to Our World in Data, a non-profit website, only 19.5% of the global plastic waste was recycled in 2015 while 55%, 25% and 20% were discarded, incinerated and recycled respectively.

Germany has the highest recycling rate in the world with 56.1% of its waste being recycled, followed by Austria at 53.8%, South Korea at 53.7%, Wales at 52.2%, and Switzerland at 49.7%. Other notable countries with their recycling rate are 45.7% in the UK, 4.4% in the US, 20.8% in Japan, and 51% in Australia.

China’s national SWORD policy

It has been a year since China jammed the world’s recycling programs around the world through its National Sword Policy. What has been the world’s biggest

plastic-waste-from-mobiles-in-guiyu-china
collection of plastic waste from mobile phones in Guiyu, China

importer of the world has now banned the import of most plastic wastes along with other recyclables. The country has now imposed a 99.5% purity standard, making most exporters struggle to meet the near-impossible standard.

The move was an effort to stop the import of contaminated and soiled wastes that was causing hiccups in the country’s processing facilities and creating more environmental problems. Ever since 2018 after the country announced the policy, the country’s imports on plastics plummeted by a massive 99 percent.

With almost all recyclable plastics from municipal recycling programs being banned, more plastics are landing up in landfills or incinerators or just littered because of the high costs of transporting which renders the practice unprofitable. In 2018, it was reported that over half a million tons of plastic wastes and household garbage was burned while Australia is struggling to handle its stockpile of 1.3 million tons of waste that would otherwise have been shipped to China had it not been for the National Sword Policy.

Europe and the US have been the most hard-hit by the policy with their longstanding recycling collection programs. Increasing costs and decreasing incomes are forcing recycling operations to shut down and curbside pickup programs to be suspended.

Further readings:

What companies are doing to turn off the Plastic tap

China’s National Sword Policy and the undeniable consequences of the toxic tide of plastic have made the entire world sit up in alarm. People are now starting to reject single-use plastics, governments are making more sustainable policies and over 50 countries have signed up for the UN Environment Clean Seas campaign.

Large companies can no longer ignore this global outcry and businesses are implementing plans to phase out their single-use plastics in favor of recycled plastics. According to Bloomberg, in 2018 a group of 25 investors that managed over $1 trillion in assets demanded Unilever, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Nestle to reduce their plastic packaging. Backed by the non-profit organization As You Sow, the companies were asked to disclose their annual use of plastic packaging, encourage recycling, set goals for reduction and transition to compostable, reusable and recyclable packaging as much as possible.

Here is a list of companies large and small making changes to their plastic use:

  • In April last year, Nestle pledged that by 2025 it will make all its packaging reusable or recyclable.
  • Unilever pledged to make all its packaging fully recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025.
  • Automobile manufacturer Volvo said that at least 25 percent of the plastics used in their car models will be sourced from recycled materials from 2025.
  • In January last year, Coca-Cola launched its World Without Waste campaign and said it will recycle a used can or bottle for every new bottle their sell by 2030.
  • McDonald’s said it will use recyclable and renewable sources for all its packaging by 2025.
  • Dell targets to make all its packaging from 100 percent sustainable sources by 2020.
  • Last year, Procter & Gamble, the company that makes Head & Shoulders shampoo made its first ever recyclable shampoo bottle using 25 % of recycled beach plastic.

Further readings:

Stop Plastic pollution at the source

Plastic can be recycled only for a limited number of times. Also, it takes up to 1000 years for it to breakdown; worse, it doesn’t even become other materials it just breaks down into microscopic pieces that are still non-biodegradable. The plastic fragments eventually find their way into large water bodies like the ocean, but that’s just what we have to worry about. Plastic is made from toxic materials like vinyl hydrochloride and benzene. These are chemicals that cause cancer and pollute our air and soil.

Reduce and Refuse!

The most effective way to reduce the harmful effects of plastic is not to create it in the first place. Recycling a water bottle takes a lot of steps and a lot of energy. By refusing to use plastic in the first place, you are altogether preventing the extraction of the minerals from the earth, the fuels used to transport it to places where it will be sold, and the energy used during the manufacturing process. Plus once used, not all plastics can be recycled. Only a negligible percentage of used plastics are recycled and remade into useful items. Did you know that every kid who brings their lunch to school in a non-reusable bag every day generates about 67 pounds of plastic waste annually?

ECO-friendly substitutes for Plastic

  1. Reusable Shopping Bags: This is a simple choice of carrying along a reusable bag with you every time you go shopping. It doesn’t take up space in your bag; and it certainly doesn’t take up space in your car.
  2. Glass: Unlike plastic, glass is made from sand. It is a renewable resource and does not contain harmful chemicals that can be transferred to your food. Glass is also easy to recycle whether you reuse it to store your leftovers or throw it in the recycle bin.
  3. Starch-based Polymers: This is a completely bio-degradable, natural, renewable, low-cost polymer that has been receiving a lot of attention lately. However, its mechanical properties are quite poor and cannot replace the sturdy plastic products.
  4. PLA Polyesters: PLA or Polylactic acid can be made from lactic acid produced during starch fermentation of corn, sugarcane or wheat. It performs and looks just like polyethylene.
  5. PHA Polyesters: Just feed sugar to certain kinds of bacteria, and you’ve got PHA Polyesters! These are biodegradable plastics and are very similar to the man-made polypropylene.
  6. Liquid Wood: This biopolymer acts, looks and feels just like plastic but are bio-degradable. It is made from a pulp-based renewable resource called lignin.
  7. Grape Waste: Vegea, an Italian company is using grape waste to create synthetic leather that could be a more sustainable alternative to vinyl imitation leather and clothing fabrics.
  8. Mile Protein: There are currently researches going on to convert casein, the main protein present in milk into a material that can match the compressibility and stiffness of polystyrene.
  9. Plastic Additives: There are attempts to make plastics bio-degradable by throwing in an additive called prodegradant concentrates. These are metal compounds like manganese stearate or cobalt stearate. These additives trigger oxidation that breaks down the plastic into low molecular fragments.

Going beyond the recycle bin

Plastics can certainly make your life easier, but there is a substantial amount of plastic waste that is piling up all over the world. Every minute, an equivalent of truckload enters our oceans. Plastic recycling was introduced to address this problem, but it is not enough to throw your plastics into the recycle bin. We need to get to the source of the problem.

Not long ago, our grandparents lived in a world without throwaway plastic, and it is totally possible even today. Giant companies of the world are perfectly capable of helping the world go beyond single-use plastics. In fact today we see many innovative solutions attempting to create plastics or alternatives that can be reused. It’s time to put a stop to baby steps and half measures by tackling it head-on.

By purchasing products made from recycled plastics, you are also increasing the demand for recycled products and thereby creating a healthy recycling loop. Start the recycling at your home by reusing the empty coffee creamer container to store your snacks. You can also make fun DIY cat planters, piggy banks and plant herbs in your used bottle, upcycle your empty detergent bottle into a watering can, or turn honey bear bottles into lamps.

You can also make a difference by refusing to purchase products with excess packaging, choose metal or glass drink containers over plastic, or wear wool instead of synthetic garments.

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