Recycling plastic for a sustainable future
Plastic is everywhere!
Plastic is everywhere you look, it's your water bottle, your Tupperware, it's in your sunglasses and even in your car. Take a look around you. Chances are that most of what you see contains some form of plastic.
What is plastic?
Plastic is essentially a synthetic polymer. 99% of plastics are derived from crude oil which is used to produce monomers. These monomers are joined together by means of a chemical bonding process to create a polymer.
Plastic is commonly used because of its ability to be extruded or moulded into an endless variety of shapes. There are a number of benefits of using plastic over other materials:
- The manufacture of plastics consumes less energy
- Plastics are resource efficient
- Plastic is lightweight and highly durable
- Plastic is low-maintenance and weather resistant
- Plastics can preserve and distribute water economically, reliably and safely
- Plastics are long-lasting – plastic water pipes have a guaranteed life of 50 years
- Most importantly: Plastic can be reused and recycled!
Types of plastic
Different types of plastics are made from different polymers and therefore do different things and perform in different ways.
Most plastic products contain a polymer identification code for the easy identification of what type of plastic is used:
|Plastic ID Code||Abbreviation||Plastic Type||Applications|
|PET||Polyethylene Terephtalate||Packaging: bottles, containers, plastic film, etc.|
|HDPE||High Density Polyethylene||Buckets, containers, agricultural pipe, etc.|
|PVC||Polyvinyl Chloride||Pipes & gutters, packaging, motor components, medical products, protective clothing, etc.|
|LDPE||Low Density Polyethylene||Packaging film, cosmetic bottles, low pressure pipes, etc.|
|PP||Polypropylene||Bottle caps, containers, kitchenware, plastic chairs, etc.|
|PS||Polystyrene||Display & protective packaging, insulation, etc.|
|-||Other||Electronic devices, sports gear, machine parts, etc.|
While plastic presents many beneficial opportunities, it also presents one of the major hazards to the environment. Plastic is highly-resistant to degradation and can take up to as much as 500 years to fully break down and if not recycled, typically end up in landfill sites or dumped in the ocean, contributing heavily to the world's pollution and presenting a critical danger to animals.
By recovering and recycling these plastics, the amount of environmental waste can be dramatically reduced and reprocessed into useful products.
How is plastic recycled?
Plastics are collected from waste bins and industrial sites and sorted according to their identification code and colour.
The sorted plastics are shredded and washed to remove any plastic labels or left over impurities.
The clean plastic is then melted and extruded into small pellets.
These plastics pellets are use in the manufacture of other useful products such as bins or plastic bags.
Although this process may seem like a simple one, it is actually very complicated and poses many challenges. Because of the formation of different molecules in different plastics, plastics require a lot of processing in order to be recycled as heating alone cannot dissolve these diverse molecules. This is why we have polymer identification codes so that we can sort out the different types of plastics to be recycled separately. However, this can often be a difficult task.
Is there an alternative?
Another environmentally-friendly method for disposing of non-recyclable material and plastics is clean waste-to-energy incineration. As the name suggests, waste-to-energy incineration is the process of creating energy such as electricity or heat through the combustion (or incineration) of waste material. By incinerating waste that includes plastic, incinerators are able to reduce the amount of waste without using fuel to operate and can even generate energy at the same time!