and fills our lives on a continual basis. Plastic can be found in so many places in our modern world: in our homes, in our automobiles, at our jobs, in our electronics, in our children’s toys, in our gardens… Plastic even surrounds most of our food! All of this plastic use is quite significant, since the majority of plastics available today are derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.
Fortunately, with all of this plastic in our lives, a lot of it can be recycled and remade into new products. Plastic recycling saves fossil fuel, saves energy, saves landfill space, and reduces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
So, how is plastic recycled, anyway?
The plastic recycling process (or the journey of a plastic water bottle)
Let’s say that you have just finished drinking water from a commercial disposable (but recyclable!) water bottle. As you place your empty water bottle into your home recycling bin as you always do, you wonder, “What will actually happen to this water bottle after I’m finished with it?”
In order for your plastic water bottle to get from your recycling bin and made into new products, it goes on a very long journey!
- First, your bottle must be collected by a recycling facility. This can happen when recycling collection drivers pick up your recycling bin on your curb in front of your house, or when you bring your recyclable waste to a local recycling facility.
- Next, if your local recycling company has implemented a Single Stream Recycling system, by which all materials are collected together, these materials must undergo a sorting process to separate the different materials, such as glass, paper, metals, and plastic materials like your plastic water bottle. Most often, the majority of this sorting process is done automatically with machines, but it may also include one manual sort to eliminate as much contamination of the materials as possible.
- Since there are numerous types of plastics in use today, all of the plastic materials in a recycling facility must be separated by type. Your plastic water bottle will likely be grouped with the other plastic materials made with #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) plastic.
Unfortunately, certain types of plastics are not as easily recycled as other types of plastics. Many recycling facilities do not have equipment that can handle every type of plastic, and so these items may be sold to another facility that can recycle them or they may end up in a landfill. Ask your recycling company about what they do with items they cannot process.
- Next, your plastic water bottle will go to an area of the recycling facility where it will be ground up into chips or flakes, and the plastic will then be washed to get rid of any labels or remaining residue.
- The plastic is dried, melted, and formed into pellets, which can be used for manufacturing new products.
- These pellets can then be sold to companies and used to make different products, such as artificial fleece, engineered wood products, carpeting, floor mats, tiles, furniture, motor oil, detergent bottles, pipes and pails.
Your water bottle will now be given a new life as something else!
Despite the efficiency of most recycling facilities, there can still be some difficulties involved with the process of recycling plastic. Materials such as dyes, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and sometimes pieces of biodegradable plastic can potentially contaminate an entire batch of petroleum-based plastics and it will all need to be thrown away. This is why it is very important to follow the guidelines of your recycling company regarding which plastics can and cannot be accepted.
Reducing your use of plastic is best, but recycling your plastic whenever possible is the next-best solution!