What's the Process of Recycling Plastic?
Consumers are becoming aware of the problems that plastic creates. Although recycling programs now exist in many parts of the world, there is still confusion around plastic recycling. Often, people don't know which products are made from what type of plastic. Even when they do know this, they may not know which types of plastic are accepted for recycling in their locality.
Which Types of Plastic Can Be Recycled?
Most commonly used to make plastic bottles, this type of plastic is also one of the most recycled with various uses. For example, it can be turned into polyester for the clothing industry.
This type of plastic is also commonly recycled. Thicker than polyethylene terephthalate, it is used for products like toys, chemical storage bottles, and bottle caps.
This is the most common type of plastic found in households. Furniture and water pipes are usually made from it. This product can be toxic during manufacturing, so a special recycling method must be used. Because of this, most plastic recyclers are unable to recycle it.
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Which Types of Plastic Cannot Be Recycled?
ㆍPolystyrene and styrofoam
Most takeaway food containers and packaging materials are made from these plastics. Because they often take more energy to recycle than they do to produce, they're not a cost-effective recycling choice.
Personal hygiene products like shampoo and deodorant are often sold in polypropylene containers. Often, the original contents leave an undesirable odor behind, making it difficult and expensive to recycle it in a way that leads to reusable polypropylene.
This is mostly used to make certain types of containers and trash bags. But current recycling plant machinery can't handle trash bags, meaning it's not cost-effective to recycle them.
Plastic Recycling Steps
ㆍCollecting. Before any plastic can be recycled it has to be collected. Although this step appears simple, many parts of the world still don't have effective or easily accessible recycling programs. In remote, rural areas or in developing countries, just collecting plastic waste is a big challenge.
ㆍSorting and categorizing. Once collected, the plastic waste must be sorted and categorized. This is done according to type. While much of the sorting can be automated, there is usually an additional manual sorting step due to the variable types, shapes, and sizes of plastic products.
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ㆍWashing. Plastic cannot be recycled until excess products are washed off. Non-plastic products like adhesives are commonly added to plastic during product manufacturing. In addition, some plastic might be coated in waste like leftover food.
ㆍShredding and melting. The plastic is then shredded into flakes, which are then melted and re-forged into pellets. Any remaining impurities, such as metal, are separated from the plastic during this stage.
ㆍDistributing. The plastic pellets are then sent to plastics manufacturers to be made into new forms of platic products.
The Future of Plastic Recycling
Consumers tend to change their habits based on education. In the case of plastic recycling, consumer awareness of plastic pollution is increasing and consumers are demanding and purchasing everyday items made from recycled plastic. That demand will increase plastic recycling.
Additionally, the legal and regulatory landscape around plastic recycling is slowly changing. Single-use plastics in the form of drinking straws, plastic bags, knives, and forks are now, or soon will be, banned in many countries.
Entrepreneurs recognize that recycling plastic needs a new approach. Researchers are working on this, and new technologies are in the pipeline. One of the most promising involves breaking plastic down into other chemical elements using enzymes. In a recent application of this technology, researchers were able to demonstrate recycling plastic into jet fuel.
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