Plastic Recycling Basics

Plastic refers to a wide array of synthetic or semi-synthetic solids that are used in producing a wide variety of industrial products and items.  The word plastic is derived from the Greek word “plastikos” which means capable of being shaped or molded.

Plastics generally require a longer recycling process because plastic has a high molecular weight and has larger polymer chains when compared to other materials such as metal and glass.  Heating is generally not enough to dissolve a plastic material’s large molecules, as compared to organic molecules.

Here are some interesting facts regarding the recycling of plastic:

Recycling plastic requires a lot of time and energy.  Plastic is a truly versatile product.  It can be either rigid or flexible, opaque or transparent.  Plastic can be made to look like silk, wood or leather.  Plastic can be made into any number of items including plastic toys and containers and even heart valves.  There are 10,000 different types of plastic.  The raw materials for plastic are natural gas or petroleum.  The process of recycling plastic starts from the time the material is made until the time it is once again reused as a new product after completing a recycling process.

Most cities and towns have recycling collection facilities where residents drop off their recyclable items Some municipalities have curbside pickup for collection of recyclable items.  At the recycling facilities the plastics are sorted and cleaned and reprocessed into new materials.  However, unlike materials such as aluminum which can easily be mixed with other aluminum variants, there are different types of plastic. Each type plastic carries a resin identification code.  This means that each plastic resin type has to be separately recycled.

What happens to plastic when it reaches the recycling center?  After you send your used plastic items to a recycling center  the workers inspect the items and look for contaminants such as glass or rock or other plastic types which the plant cannot recycle.  The recyclable plastic is then washed and chopped into flakes which are sorted in a floatation tank to determine which plastics sink and which plastics float.

The plastic flakes are then dried in a tumble drier and then melted in a machine called an “extruder”.  The heat and pressure in the extruder melt the plastic material.  Because there are different types of plastic each variant will melt at a different temperature.  The molten plastic is forced into a fine screen to separate the contaminants and then the molten plastic is formed into strands.

These strands are cooled in water and chopped in uniform pellets.  The recycled plastic pellets can be made into different products from carpeting materials to flower pots, lumber substitutes and many more products.

While many people frown on the use of plastic products, the sad truth is that we are using more and more of these items than ever before.  If you are worried about the effects of plastic on the environment here’s how you can personally help.  As often as possible try reusing plastic products.  Attempt to use alternatives to plastic products and instead use paper or cloth.  If you are purchasing grocery items buy the product refills and reuse the original plastic container instead of using another  new plastic container.

You can help the environment and cut down on waste if you follow the three R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle.