It doesn’t seem like recycling plastic should be all that difficult. So why are curbside recycling programs such a failure while industrial plastic recycling is an economically viable enterprise? It boils down to the way we do things. For example, consider separation and contamination. Both influence plastic recycling.
Separation is a two-stage process. First, recyclable plastics have to be separated from non-recyclables. Second, plastics that are combined with other materials in a single piece have to be separated from those other materials.
As for contamination, it should be self-explanatory. Plastic waste has to be free from contaminants before it can be mixed with virgin plastic to make new products. The amount of decontamination necessary depends on the type of plastic and how it is used.
Easily Recycled PET
One of the biggest success stories in consumer plastics recycling is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Used mostly for bottled water, PET is fairly easy to decontaminate. And thanks to public education efforts, it is fairly easy to convince people to discard PET bottles via dedicated containers. Self-separation and easy decontamination make PET a profitable item to recycle.
Another fairly common plastic, known as propylene (PP), is not so easily recycled despite making up some 20% of the entire global stream of plastic waste. It is problematic because it is the exact opposite of PET in terms of separation and contamination.
Aside from forcing consumers to separate PP products from everything else, there is no easy way to handle the task. According to The Grocer, a consortium of UK businesses have been working on that problem for years. They believe they now have the technology to make sorting PP efficient and automated.
As for decontamination, PP packaging is utilized extensively for food and personal care products. Everything from yogurt to shampoo is packaged in PP. Decontaminating product packaging is not as easy as it sounds. But that same consortium believes it have solved that problem as well.
The Same Story with Every Plastic
Strip away the politics of recycling and you will discover the same story with every type of plastic. Technically, every piece of plastic we manufacture could be recovered and recycled. But doing so efficiently and cost-effectively is another matter.
Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that collects and recycles commercial plastic waste. Among the many items they recycle are bundled PET bottles. Again, PET is easy to sort and decontaminate. That makes it attractive to companies that manufacture plastic water bottles.
On a similar note, Seraphim also recycles the waste generated by injection mold manufacturing. This type of plastic is just as easily separated as PET. In most cases, it comes to Seraphim nearly completely free of all contaminants. All they have to do is grind it, run it through magnets to remove metal pieces, and package it for shipping.
Efficiency Equals Productivity
In the case of both PET bottles and injection mold waste, recycling is economically viable because it is efficient. The long and short of it is that efficiency equals productivity. Likewise, productivity equals profit.
Recyclers like Seraphim do not have to spend a ton on sorting and recovery. What comes to them is already sorted. They also don’t have to decontaminate the plastics they buy. All they really have to do is collect the materials and grind them up. It’s as easy as that.
Curbside recycling doesn’t work so well because separation and decontamination are costly. If we could change just those two things, we really could recover most of the plastics we use. But to do so requires the will to change. Do we have that will?