How is Plastic Recycled?

The complexities of recycling plastic for re-use

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Plastic is found almost everywhere in our world today, in our products and packaging and so inevitably in our rubbish bins. Plastic takes a very long time to biodegrade, so over time, if nothing is done with it, it ends up in landfill creating an increasing backlog of waste. Fortunately, most plastics are capable of being recycled and given a fresh lease of life. How is this achieved?

Sorting

The first step in the process is to sort plastic waste into its different types. This is important so as to prevent batches being contaminated by incompatible varieties. Sorting can be done both manually and by machine, some using sensors such as x-ray or infrared to help distinguish between types.

Resizing

Once the plastic is sorted, it is then cut into smaller more manageable pieces for further processing. The machines used to do this have large blades that shred the plastic down and then filter it out once the pieces are small enough.

Separation

After the plastic has been shredded down to size, it can be further processed to wash it clean of contaminants such as dirt, grit, labels and adhesives. Mixed plastic can also be separated in water tanks due to their difference in density, where some varieties will float and others will sink.
Other separation techniques involve filtration by using jets of compressed air and by using heat to separate plastics according to their melting point.

Compounding

When the plastic has finished being cleaned and separated out, the final step before it can be re-used as a manufacturing material is to convert it into a pellet form, which is more easily transported and utilised by moulding machines. The plastic flakes are heated into a liquid state and extruded as long strands that once cooled and hardened are then mechanically cut into pellets. During this process, additives may be mixed with the plastic to improve its quality.

Re-use

The recycled material can then be used by manufacturers to make new products with their own machines, just as they would with new plastic materials. Items that are often made using recycled plastic include bottles, playground equipment, patio decking, kitchen cutting boards and clothes.

There is a lot of media focus currently on where plastic is ending up and the damage that it can do if it is not managed correctly. As individuals in our own homes with our personal purchasing choices and for those of us in industry who work with plastic every day, it is imperative that we try to improve our use and disposal of plastic materials and make the best use of recycling where we can.

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