Recycling plastic makes economic and environmental sense

Plastic products are ubiquitous throughout the world. As reliance on these lightweight, durable products increases, so does the need for global innovation in recycling technologies. Over the decades, recycling companies have developed a variety of processes to turn discarded plastics into hundreds of products, from paint brushes to rugs and pillows to ship hulls to railroad ties.

Calling the Consumer
The biggest challenge for recycling manufacturers is to educate and engage the public. About 75 percent of Americans recycle newspaper and cardboard, while just over 25 percent recycle plastic. Industry analysts believe this low response rate could be due to a lack of understanding about the coding for recyclable plastics, the small triangle with a number in the center, which identifies what type of plastic an item is.

The most frequently recycled plastics of the seven groups of polymeric plastics are PET 01, used in soft drink bottles and smaller jars; PE-HD 02, a harder and more durable plastic used in milk bottles and large garbage bags; and PE-LD 04 which is strong yet flexible and is used in frozen food bags, flexible container lids and squeeze bottles.

Although the recycling rate for these and other products is still not impressive, the numbers have been steadily increasing since 1990. In 2006, about 2.2 billion pounds of PET plastic bottles were recycled and 928 million pounds of packaging were made. HDPE (high density polyethylene). Recycle.

Innovative PET production
As awareness of the environmental damage caused by polymers has increased, so has the urgency to encourage recycling. At the same time, experimentation with processing and application increased. For example, according to a CNN report, a Ph.D. in India, Dr. S. Madhu, included crushed and melted plastic in a mixture for the road surface. Working for the Kerala Road Research Institute, Madhu mixed the plastic with aggregate and bitumen to create a surface that withstands the ravages of the annual monsoon seasons.

Working in a highly regulated environment, conventional recycling manufacturers focus on producing a long list of common products. Although the processes vary, they generally follow a common methodology. First of all, plastics are classified according to their PET identification number. This is usually done before the recycled products reach the manufacturer. “Dirty” PET containers are also cleaned of labels, glue and other residual materials. A dirty grind of PET then goes to reclaimers who process the material into a form that can be used by manufacturers. Reclaimers further clean materials of contaminants and materials that are lighter than plastic. The final PET flakes are washed with a special detergent that removes glue, food or dirt.

The PET materials are then further treated with processes that separate the heavier PET particles from the lighter ones, which is called the sink-float stage. The plastics are then dried and ready to be made into new products in the hands of manufacturers around the world.

However, new methods are constantly being developed to recycle PET products, including a depolymerization process that “reverses” the chemical process used to make the polymer. There are pilot projects using this method, as well as other innovative processes to make plastic recycling greener and cheaper.

Demand for Recycled Products
The importance of recycled PET and HDPE cannot be ignored. This latter, heavier PET is used to make building materials that become backyard decks that outlast wood; turns into patio furniture, trash cans, office products, buckets, safety cones and much more. HDPE can also be used to make above and below ground water storage tanks that withstand decades of use.

Of the five main classes of PET plastics, the most advanced use is the manufacture of new PET bottles and containers. Other classes include plastic sheeting or plastic used to mold small items such as laundry detergent scoops; strapping materials for packaging and transportation; resins used in molds for automotive components; and material that is combined to make fibers for carpets, fabrics, and fiberfill.

Recycled PET can show up in unexpected places, such as business cards, sleeping bags, baseball caps, and the welcome mat at your front door.

In the hands of the consumer
Ultimately, it all depends on the consumer. Awareness of the environmental benefits of plastic recycling and the feasibility of manufacturing with recycled PET can mitigate environmental damage and support a global industry that brings cheap and useful products back to market.

In the US, many municipal governments have made it easy for consumers to recycle plastic. The cities accept all plastic products with the recycling symbol and sort them themselves before sending them for further processing. The consumer does not have to deal with separating PET numbers or peeling off labels. Many states have passed laws commonly known as “bottle bills” that charge a small fee for plastic containers. There is a greater value for the consumer to recycle when there is the incentive of a redemption value. Some communities have “drop-off” recycling centers and others have “buy-back” centers that pay consumers for recyclables.

Whatever the recycling method or process that recreates the value of discarded PET products, it is clear that the public, governments and industry share a financial and environmental interest in the practice of plastic recycling.

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