Have you ever wondered about how plastic is recycled when you toss your recycling into the bin? There is a detailed process behind plastic recycling when you look past the metaphorical curtain and examine the recycling business. For those curious, here we will explore a step-by-step guide to recycling plastic by exploring the recycling process. We’ll walk you through the six steps of plastic recycling and how this process can have an impact on all of us. Maybe these details will even help you reconsider your recycling habits.
Step 1: Collection
The first step to the process is obtaining the recycling materials. Typically, either local government programs or private trash and recycling collection companies will take care of this. Businesses usually hire these private companies to collect from their commercial recycling bins. There are also more local options for recycling collection. Your local grocery store may collect the plastic bags they give out to customers in order to be more sustainable. You can also find specific recycling locations that will accept more unconventional recycling items such as computers, batteries, and other electronics. Eventually, company or government recycling trucks haul all these recyclables off to a recycling plant for the next step.
Step 2: Sorting
Once the recyclables have arrived, workers and automated machines will sort the plastics from other recyclables. After separating plastics from the rest, recyclers will then further separate the plastics into their own categories based on code. Additionally, recyclers may separate plastics based on color, thickness, and use to helps organize them for reuse. The automation behind this step helps increase the efficiency of the recycling process and is becoming more and more effective as machines improve.
Different Types of Plastics
You may have noticed before that all plastics have a code and a number assigned to them. Plastics with numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 can all be recycled (these are also known as PET, HDPE, LDPE, and PP, respectively). However, plastic with numbers 3, 6, and 7 cannot be recycled (also known as PVC, PS, and OTHER, respectively). These plastics can release contaminants and toxins during processing, making them unsuitable for recycling.
Step 3: Washing
Sometimes, we’re not as thorough with the washing process as we should be before throwing recycling in the bin. This is what step three is for! The machine line will wash the sorted recycling as it comes through to remove labels, dirt, food residue, glue, and more. This step strips the materials of anything that would cause damage or structural integrity during the transformation process.
Now, that doesn’t mean we can skip washing our recyclables before we put them in the bin – this is still a key step for consumers, as dirt and food debris on recycling can impede the previous steps and cause delays. All it takes is a quick rinse or scrub to get most recycling clean, and then you can go ahead and toss it.
Step 4: Resizing or Shredding
From the washing station, plastic moves on to the shredding step, during which it breaks down into fragments. This step uses a shredder to reform the plastic items. The shredder takes the full-sized plastics (which are impossible to be reformed in their current form) and shreds them into little pieces. These small pieces are more workable for future steps. This process also acts as one final check for any impurities in the plastics, such as metal or any other debris.
Step 5: Plastic Separation
After shredding, the plastic pieces go through another separation process. Since they have already been organized by code, they are then tested for density, thickness, and weight, and separated by these categories accordingly. To discover these differences, plastics are put through a series of tests by recyclers. First is the density test, which involves submerging plastic pieces in a large vat of water to see which sink or float. Next comes the air classification test, which involves placing plastic particles in a controlled wind tunnel. Two other distinguishing factors to note are color and melting point, which involves taking samples from each group. The results from each of these tests lead to the new groupings of each type of plastic particle.
Step 6: Compounding and Transformation
Now that the plastics are thoroughly cleaned, identified, and separated, they can enter the final stage of the recycling process. Compounding is the process of taking these tiny plastic pieces and transforming them into plastic pellets and other safe, reusable plastic materials. Manufacturers can then use these recycled plastics in their future products. Compounding takes the longest amount of time of all the plastic recycling steps due to the processing time. Plastics might be made into these pellets, melted down into new shapes, and more, which are all time-consuming processes. But by the end, recyclers have turned what was once waste into a new material.
What Are the Benefits of Recycling Plastic?
Plastic recycling has many benefits for consumers, businesses, and the environment. Most notably, plastic recycling keeps unnecessary waste out of landfills, oceans, and natural environments and habitats. This means less waste that must be burned or buried, leading to less air and water pollution. On a small scale, this might not seem like much, but this practice can significantly aid in the fight against global warming as a worldwide effort. Plastic recycling allows us to be less wasteful by reusing packaging. Some states and areas will even pay you a small reward for bringing recycling into certain centers. For all these benefits, the simple act of sorting your recycling is very much worth it.
This has been a deep dive into our step-by-step guide to recycling plastic. We hope this clears up any confusion about the recycling process and helps you redouble your recycling efforts. While it may seem like a complicated process, most recycling processes are handled automatically, which makes recycling more efficient than ever. Next time you toss a plastic bottle or container into the recycling bin, you can think about all the future products that the container might turn into. Take pride in the fact that you are helping the earth bit by bit.