The Life Cycle of Recycled Plastic
Pretty much everyone is going green these days, and thus, more value is placed on products made of recycled material. And among recyclable products, plastic has got to be the easiest to recycle since it doesn’t degrade like organic materials you can either find new uses for any existing plastic bags and containers you may have, or send these products to a recycling plant to be remade into “new” material. But have you ever wondered just what happens behind closed doors of a plastic recycling plant? Just what takes place to make something as seemingly indestructible as plastic into something new?
In an article by Heather Wansbrough and David Yuen on plastics recycling, they give us a quick rundown of what happens to plastic products in a recycling plant:
The 5-Step Plastic Recycling Process
- Collection – Recycling facilities gather available recyclable material in their area, and from roadside collections, special recycling bins, or even directly from industries, post-consumer and post-industrial plastic items are collected.
- Manual sorting – All items that are collected are then sorted according to the types indicated by the recycling symbols and codes on them. Unnecessary non-plastic materials found in the piles are promptly taken out.
- Chipping – After sorting, the plastic products are prepared for melting by being cut into small pieces. The sorted plastic items are then fed into a machine which has sets of blades that slice through the material and break the plastic into tiny bits.
- Washing – At this step, all residue of products originally contained in the plastic items and various other “contaminants” (e.g. paper labels, dirt) are removed. A particular wash solution consisting of an alkaline, cationic detergent in water and a wash tank are used to effectively get rid of all the contaminants on the plastic material, making sure that all items are clean and ready for the final step. During washing, the wash tank agitator serves as an abrasive, stripping the adhesive off any labels and shredding any paper mixed in with the plastics. An alkaline, cationic detergent (which is similar to the formulas used in shampoos and fabric softeners) is used for the task of washing plastics because plastic materials have a positive surface charge, and only positively-charged chemical compounds (which in this case are cationic detergents) can properly clean them, effectively removing dirt and grease.
- Pelleting – The chipped pieces of plastic are then melted down and put through a machine called an “extruder”. The extruder shapes the melted plastic into thin noodle-like tubes. The plastic tubes are then cut into small pellets by a set of rotating knives, which are then ready to be reused and remade into new items.
In the bag
Plastic bags go through the same five-step process as other plastic products, and are also washed and rinsed according to their plastic types. These also go through a “chipping” stage, but in the case of plastic bags, these are chopped rather than chipped. The chopped shreds of plastic bags are then melted down accordingly to go through the pelleting stage.
The recycled plastic pellets are usually sold by the recycling company to other businesses which would then mold the plastic pellets into an assortment of products for various uses. Some products use a combination of recycled plastic pellets and virgin plastic ones. Though people tend to go for fully virgin plastic when available, the value of recycled plastic is undeniable, because recycling cuts down on landfill contribution and the process creates an avenue to reuse plastic, which is a non-renewable resource, which in turn reduces the rate of pollution and promotes overall wellness.
PlasticPlace.com believes in using recycled material in their products, and the company aims to popularize the idea of reusing and recycling through their own unique line of garbage bags made with 80% recycled material (10% of which is post-consumer, 70% post-industrial).