Plastic is an essential material that helps keep the economy going. Due to its versatility and durability, plastic is used in a number of applications, ranging from packaging to electronic parts manufacturing.
While plastics have become an indispensable part of everyday life, the world produces approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. And with a variety of uses, it’s no wonder storefronts, alleyways, public spaces, and bodies of water are littered with plastic material.
The following are six types of plastics that are usually in circulation:
- Polystyrene (PS) – found in plastic utensils, cups for hot drinks
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – found in juice squeeze bottles, sheet barriers
- Polypropylene (PP) – found in ice cream containers, to-go or take-out counters
- Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) – found in garbage bags, container or storage bins
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE) – found in shampoo bottles, milk containers
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – found in soft drink bottles, fruit juice containers
That said, recycling and reusing plastics is increasingly becoming more important in waste management efforts.
There are different ways to recycle plastics. The first method is called primary recycling or closed loop. This is considered the most common and straightforward approach. The plastic product is recycled to fulfil its initial use. A soft drink bottle can be reused as a bottle for a different drink, for instance.
The main drawback: if the original product’s quality is compromised, it may not be an appropriate container for certain substances.
Secondary recycling is focused on down-cycling, which uses recycled plastics to produce an entirely different product. For example, PET bottles can be modified and used as the material in making carpets.
Tertiary recycling involves modifying the plastic product through a chemical process. Crucial to this method is the use of a catalyst and a large energy source that produces heat. This approach can be quite costly and energy-intensive.
The last approach is quaternary recycling or energy recovery. Plastic is incinerated and energy is recovered from the process in the form of heat. The latter is used as a source of energy that powers different processes.
Similar to tertiary recycling, it is also energy-intensive and may be counter-productive if part of the goal in recycling is to ensure energy savings.
Improvements in the process of plastic recycling
Plastic sheet manufacturers, big brands, and government departments have been finding ways to improve plastic recycling methods.
One innovation success is in looking for high-value applications for primary recycling. In the UK for instance, PET sheets used in thermoforming are composed of over 50 percent recycled PET plastic.
Additionally, advancements in washing and sorting capabilities have enabled governments in Germany, Italy, and Austria to collect plastic-based pots, tubs, and trays for reuse.
While these developments are promising, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed. Mixed plastics are still tricky to recycle and certain chemical residues are hard to remove on some plastic products.
The long-term solution is for businesses and entire industries to have plastic recycling on top of mind when creating products. That way, when these products circulate on the market, consumers and concerned agencies will have an easier time reusing and recycling them.