As a waste management company, Plastic is one of the most common materials we deal with for our partners. It is also one of the most complicated categories of recycling due to the various types of plastic used and processes behind recycling them. In this blog, we are going to breakdown what plastic is, what kinds of plastic there are and positive and negatives of plastic usage.
What is Plastic?
Plastics are a range of synthetic materials made from organic polymers. These derive from natural materials such as cellulose, natural gas and most commonly, crude oil. Plastics come in many forms and have a wide range of usage. Plastic is incredibly versatile and has key properties important to manufacturers such as them being lightweight, durable and cheap to produce.
How are Plastics made?
Plastic production typically begins at an oil refinery. This is where the two hydrocarbon chains crucial to plastic production, ethane and propane, are found. These hydrocarbons are treated with high heat in a process called ‘cracking’ which turns them into monomers, ethylene and propylene.
These polymers are combined with a catalyst, fed into an extruder and melted, forming a long tube as it cools. This tube is the plastic formed from this process. The plastic is then shredded to form the plastic pellets that can be melted down to create many items from plastic water bottles to food packaging.
What kinds of Plastic are there?
Not all plastic is created equal. All types of plastics have different benefits which are important for the variety of uses plastic can offer. Examples of the most common plastic types and their uses are:
PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) is a transparent plastic with a gloss finish. PET has many benefits with it being very durable, lightweight and cost-effective. The main use of PET plastic is in food packaging and water bottles as it’s resistant to attacks from microbes. It is highly recognised for its safety by global health authorities in food and beverages, personal care and pharmaceutical applications.
With such a wide range of applications, it is important that PET plastics can be recycled. Fortunately, PET is very energy efficient to recycle instead of just raw production. It can be made from 100% recycled materials and recycled repeatedly through chemical washing and remelting the materials down.
HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) is a thermoplastic polymer made from petroleum. It has very high tensile strength, impact resistance and melting point which make it one of the most versatile plastic types. It is commonly used to replace heavier materials such as storage containers, bins and even smaller items such as milk jugs and shampoo bottles. It shares the same anti-microbial properties as PET making it good for household items such as microwavable food containers which require high melting points.
Not only is HDPE recyclable, but it can also be made from 100% recycled post-consumer recycled plastic. Similarly to PET, it is very energy efficient and can repeatedly be recycled which is key as it is not biodegradable so ensuring a closed loop is vital in keeping the same plastics in circulation.
PP (Polypropylene) is a thermoplastic “addition polymer” made from the combination of propylene monomers. It’s a rigid, semi-crystalline thermoplastic which is very durable and offers a lot in terms of colour as it can be produced in opaque or transparent form. It is one of the lightest commodity plastics and is used when weight saving is a key factor. In its flexible form, PP is a thin sheet of plastic used to wrap clothing, food and confectionary.Plast
PP is quite resistant to chemical solvents and acids which means it can be recycled multiple times with limited damage. Unfortunately, this damage does result in polypropylene losing its colour with each round of recycling, turning it into a dark grey colour which limits its wide range of usage. It cannot be recycled indefinitely as with other kinds of plastic as the quality degrades quicker over time requiring more virgin materials to achieve the same level of quality.
Is Plastic a Perfect Solution?
Unfortunately, not. Despite all the benefits of the various types of plastic, plastic production is not only flawed but carbon-intensive whilst there is an open loop system. The vast majority of plastics are not biodegradable, meaning they can take anywhere between 25-1000 years to completely break down depending on environmental conditions. Plastic can remain in the environment for the entirety of this time unless properly disposed of, leading to pollution of water streams, natural environments and our urban areas.
One of the main issues surrounding plastic is its recyclability and our ability to manage where it ends up. Whilst 81% of post-consumer plastic is recovered, only 37% of all plastic is actually recycled. Resulting in lots of plastic waste still ending up in landfill, being incinerated or in the environment.
A big reason for this low recycling rate is the difficulty in recycling certain types of plastic and separating plastics into their recyclable parts. Plastics such as cling film and food bags (LDPE) are very difficult to recycle and require specialist facilities, adding additional transport, and increasing their carbon footprint. Even common items such as crisp packets which use recyclable plastic are notoriously difficult to recycle due to their foil lining. The more difficult the separation process is, the more expensive it is, making recycling less profitable for recycling facilities and reducing the incentive for a high recycling rate. It is important to be able to manage plastic waste better in the future, to result in fewer everyday items such as plastic bottles, food wrappings and plastic bags polluting the environment or on landfill sites.
How can we Recycle Our Plastic More?
Recycling more is important to closing the loop on plastic production. Giving old materials a new purpose and keeping them in use prevents them from harming the environment when in landfill or on the streets. It also allows us to enjoy the benefits of plastics in terms of cost and versatility without the drawbacks of polluting the environment.
Proper waste segregation throughout the cycle is key to improving recycling rates. From the bins we use at home to the skips we use commercially, it is vital we separate our waste and plastics correctly to improve the efficiency of recycling facilities and reduce the contamination of plastic waste. At a legislative level, by changing the way we think about packaging and moving towards more sustainable methods such as cardboard and paper packaging, we can reduce the impact of plastic by only using it when it’s needed.
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