So how do we recycle plastic?

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With so much focus now on plastic recycling, it’s interesting to learn more about the processes involved, especially as technology continues to refine the approaches taken.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that the ‘obvious’ type of plastic recycling that we think of – diverting consumer waste from landfill – is just one approach. For example, in an earlier blog, we looked at how manufacturing businesses recycle their plastic waste by channelling plastic regrinds (waste products such as bottle lids) back into their manufacturing process so that these waste parts can be added once again rather than disposed of.

When it comes to more familiar types of plastic – wrap, bags, packaging and so forth – the recycling approach depends on the polymer in question. For example:

1. Plastic bottles
The most commonly recycled type of plastic, these are easy to sort and there is a ready market for the product. Most plastic bottles are made from HDPE or PET. Public recycling facilities can easily sort bottles by the relevant polymer type, for example, milk bottles, ketchup bottles, large squash bottles, fizzy drink bottles and so forth.

2. Tubs, trays and pots
Most councils now allow residents to put their tubs, plastic pots and trays in their recycling bins, including yoghurt pots, which are increasingly made from PET recyclable materials.

3. Black food trays
These currently aren’t collected for recycling and tend to be rejected at sorting plants. There are trials in place to see where different polymers could be used in manufacturing which will be suitable for recycling, whilst retaining the black colour.

4. Plastic bags and cling film
The majority of this waste is generated by businesses, such as those which use stretch wrap for pallets. Some supermarkets are now recycling carrier bags and others are trialling the use of biodegradable bags which will no longer pose the same problem to the environment.

It’s worth noting that it is technically feasible to recycle nearly all plastic polymers. However, it only tends to happen where markets exist for recycled and reprocessed materials and where the process of recycling is cost-effective.

The recycling process

Once the materials for recycling have been gathered, they are either washed, ground into a powder form and then melted, a process known as mechanical recycling. Alternatively, chemicals are applied to break the plastics into their constituent components, known as chemical recycling. Depending on the end customer, some plastics will be sorted into colours in order to produce a consistent end product.

The challenges with plastic recycling

Dirty and food-contaminated plastics are invariably rejected, as are multi-polymer containers. Certain plastics, such as cling film, are also rejected because they become tangled in the processing machines and tend to be heavily contaminated. Sometimes, contaminated plastics can be recycled into low-grade, dark colour items such as heavy bin bags.

It’s worth noting too that there is a thriving private economy around plastics recycling, with the materials turning up in everything from tote bags and clothing through to yoga mats. Public appetite for plastic usage reduction and recycling is high and the technologies are constantly improving, ensuring that the future is bright for the environment.

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