Plastic recycling

Plastic recycling is the process of recovering scrap or waste plastic and reprocessing the material into useful products. Since the vast majority of plastic is non-biodegradable, recycling is a part of global efforts to reduce plastic in the waste stream, especially the approximately 8 million tons of waste plastic that enters the Earth's ocean every year.[1][2]

Compared with lucrative recycling of metal, and similar to the low value of glass, plastic polymers recycling is often more challenging because of low density and low value. There are also numerous technical hurdles to overcome when recycling plastic.

When different types of plastics are melted together, they tend to phase-separate, like oil and water, and set in these layers. The phase boundaries cause structural weakness in the resulting material, meaning that polymer blends are useful in only limited applications. The two most widely manufactured plastics, polypropylene and polyethylene, behave this way, which limits their utility for recycling. Recently, the use of block copolymers as "molecular stitches"[3] or "macromolecular welding flux" has been proposed[4] to overcome the difficulties associated with phase separation during recycling.[5]

The percentage of plastic that can be fully recycled, rather than downcycled or go to waste, can be increased when manufacturers of packaged goods minimize mixing of packaging materials and eliminate contaminants. The Association of Plastics Recyclers have issued a "Design Guide for Recyclability".[6]

The use of biodegradable plastics is increasing.[7]


Before recycling, most plastics are sorted according to their resin type. In the past, plastic reclaimers used the resin identification code (RIC), a method of categorization of polymer types, which was developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1988. Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly referred to as PET, for instance, has a resin code of 1. Most plastic reclaimers do not rely on the RIC now; they use automatic sort systems to identify the resin, ranging from manual sorting and picking of plastic materials to mechanized automation processes that involve shredding, sieving, separation by rates of density i.e. air, liquid, or magnetic, and complex spectrophotometric distribution technologies e.g. UV/VIS, NIR, Laser, etc.[8] Some plastic products are also separated by color before they are recycled. The plastic recyclables are then shredded. These shredded fragments then undergo processes to eliminate impurities like paper labels. This material is melted and often extruded into the form of pellets which are then used to manufacture other products.

Thermal depolymerization

Waste plastic pyrolysis to fuel oil

Plastic pyrolysis can convert petroleum-based waste streams such as plastics into fuels and carbons.[9][10][11][12][13]

Given below is the list of suitable plastic raw materials for pyrolysis:

  • Mixed plastic (HDPE, LDPE, PE, PP, Nylon, Teflon, PS, ABS, FRP etc.)
  • Mixed-waste plastic from waste paper mill
  • Multi-layered plastic

Heat compression

Heat compression takes all unsorted, cleaned plastic in all forms, from soft plastic bags to hard industrial waste, and mixes the load in tumblers (large rotating drums resembling giant clothes dryers). The most obvious benefit to this method is that all plastic is recyclable, not just matching forms. However, criticism rises from the energy costs of rotating the drums, and heating the post-melt pipes.[14]

Distributed recycling

For some waste plastics, technical devices called recyclebots[15] enable a form of distributed recycling. Preliminary life-cycle analysis(LCA) indicates that such distributed recycling of HDPE to make filament of 3-D printers in rural regions is energetically favorable to either using virgin resin or conventional recycling processes because of reductions in transportation energy[16][17]

Other processes

A process has also been developed in which many kinds of plastic can be used as a carbon source in the recycling of scrap steel.[18] There is also a possibility of mixed recycling of different plastics, which does not require their separation. It is called compatibilization and requires use of special chemical bridging agents compatibilizers. It can help to keep the quality of recycled material and to skip often expensive and inefficient preliminary scanning of waste plastics streams and their separation/purification.[19]



Post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) containers are sorted into different color fractions, and baled for onward sale. PET recyclers further sort the baled bottles and they are washed and flaked (or flaked and then washed). Non-PET fractions such as caps and labels are removed during this process. The clean flake is dried. Further treatment can take place e.g. melt filtering and pelletising or various treatments to produce food-contact-approved recycled PET (RPET).

RPET has been widely used to produce polyester fibres.[20] This sorted post-consumer PET waste is crushed, chopped into flakes, pressed into bales, and offered for sale.[21]

One use for this recycled PET is to create fabrics to be used in the clothing industry.[22] The fabrics are created by spinning the PET flakes into thread and yarn.[21] This is done just as easily as creating polyester from brand new PET.[23] The recycled PET thread or yarn can be used either alone or together with other fibers to create a very wide variety of fabrics. Traditionally these fabrics are used to create strong, durable, rough products, such as jackets, coats, shoes, bags, hats, and accessories since they are usually too rough for direct skin contact and can cause irritation.[24] However, these types of fabrics have become more popular as a result of the public's growing awareness of environmental issues. Numerous fabric and clothing manufacturers have capitalized on this trend.

Other major outlets for RPET are new containers (food-contact or non-food-contact) produced either by (injection stretch blow) moulding into bottles and jars or by thermoforming APET sheet to produce clam shells, blister packs and collation trays. These applications used 46% of all RPET produced in Europe in 2010. Other applications, such as strapping tape, injection-moulded engineering components and building materials, account for 13% of the 2010 RPET production.

In the United States the recycling rate for PET packaging was 31.2% in 2013, according to a report from The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) and The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR). A total of 1,798 million pounds was collected and 475 million pounds of recycled PET used out of a total of 5,764 million pounds of PET bottles.[25]


Plastic #2, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a commonly recycled plastic. It is typically downcycled into plastic lumber, tables, roadside curbs, benches, truck cargo liners, trash receptacles, stationery (e.g. rulers) and other durable plastic products and is usually in demand.


Most polystyrene products are not recycled due to the lack of incentive to invest in the compactors and logistical systems required. As a result, manufacturers cannot obtain sufficient scrap. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) scrap can easily be added to products such as EPS insulation sheets and other EPS materials for construction applications. When it is not used to make more EPS, foam scrap can be turned into clothes hangers, park benches, flower pots, toys, rulers, stapler bodies, seedling containers, picture frames, and architectural molding from recycled PS.[26]

Recycled EPS is also used in many metal casting operations. Rastra is made from EPS that is combined with cement to be used as an insulating amendment in the making of concrete foundations and walls. Since 1993, American manufacturers have produced insulating concrete forms made with approximately 80% recycled EPS.

Other plastics

The white plastic polystyrene foam peanuts used as packing material are often accepted by shipping stores for reuse.[27]

Successful trials in Israel have shown that plastic films recovered from mixed municipal waste streams can be recycled into useful household products such as buckets.[28]

Similarly, agricultural plastics such as mulch film, drip tape and silage bags are being diverted from the waste stream and successfully recycled[29] into much larger products for industrial applications such as plastic composite railroad ties.[30] Historically, these agricultural plastics have primarily been either landfilled or burned on-site in the fields of individual farms.[31]

CNN reports that Dr. S. Madhu of the Kerala Highway Research Institute, India, has formulated a road surface that includes recycled plastic: aggregate, bitumen (asphalt) with plastic that has been shredded and melted at a temperature below 220 degrees C (428 °F) to avoid pollution. This road surface is claimed to be very durable and monsoon rain resistant. The plastic is sorted by hand, which is economical in India. The test road used 60 kg of plastic for an approximately 500-metre-long, 8-metre-wide, two-lane road. The process chops thin-film road-waste into a light fluff of tiny flakes that hot-mix plants can uniformly introduce into viscous bitumen with a customized dosing machine. Tests at both Bangalore and the Indian Road Research Centre indicate that roads built using this 'KK process' will have longer useful lives and better resistance to cold, heat, cracking, and rutting, by a factor of three.[32]

Recycling rates

The quantity of post-consumer plastics recycled has increased every year since at least 1990, but rates lag far behind those of other items, such as newspaper (about 80%) and corrugated fiberboard (about 70%).[33] Overall, U.S. post-consumer plastic waste for 2008 was estimated at 33.6 million tons; 2.2 million tons (6.5%) were recycled and 2.6 million tons (7.7%) were burned for energy; 28.9 million tons, or 85.5%, were discarded in landfills.[34]

Japan's plastic waste utilization rate stood at 83% in 2014, up from 73% in 2006 and 39% in 1996, according to the nation's Plastic Waste Management Institute.[35]

Economic and energy potential

In 2008, the price of PET dropped from $370/ton in the US to $20 in November.[36] PET prices had returned to their long-term averages by May 2009.[37]

Plastic identification code

Seven groups of plastic polymers,[38] each with specific properties, are used worldwide for packaging applications (see table below). Each group of plastic polymer can be identified by its plastic identification code (PIC), usually a number or a letter abbreviation. For instance, low-density polyethylene can be identified by the number "4" or the letters "LDPE". The PIC appears inside a three-chasing-arrow recycling symbol. The symbol is used to indicate whether the plastic can be recycled into new products.

The PIC was introduced by the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc., to provide a uniform system for the identification of various polymer types and to help recycling companies separate various plastics for reprocessing. Manufacturers of plastic products are required to use PIC labels in some countries/regions and can voluntarily mark their products with the PIC where there are no requirements.[39] Consumers can identify the plastic types based on the codes usually found at the base or at the side of the plastic products, including food/chemical packaging and containers. The PIC is usually not present on packaging films, since it is not practical to collect and recycle most of this type of waste.

Plastic identification code Type of plastic polymer Properties Common packaging applications Melting- (°C) and glass transition temperatures Young's modulus (GPa)
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE) Clarity, strength, toughness, barrier to gas and moisture. Soft drink, water and salad dressing bottles; peanut butter and jam jars; small consumer electronics Tm = 250;[40] Tg = 76[40] 2–2.7[41]
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) Stiffness, strength, toughness, resistance to moisture, permeability to gas Water pipes, hula hoop rings, five gallon buckets, milk, juice and water bottles; grocery bags, some shampoo/toiletry bottles Tm = 130;[42] Tg = -125[43] 0.8[41]
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) Versatility, ease of blending, strength, toughness. Blister packaging for non-food items; cling films for non-food use. May be used for food packaging with the addition of the plasticisers needed to make natively rigid PVC flexible. Non-packaging uses are electrical cable insulation; rigid piping; vinyl records. Tm = 240;[44] Tg = 85[44] 2.4-4.1[45]
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) Ease of processing, strength, toughness, flexibility, ease of sealing, barrier to moisture Frozen food bags; squeezable bottles, e.g. honey, mustard; cling films; flexible container lids Tm = 120;[46] Tg = -125[47] 0.17–0.28[45]
Polypropylene (PP) Strength, toughness, resistance to heat, chemicals, grease and oil, versatile, barrier to moisture. Reusable microwaveable ware; kitchenware; yogurt containers; margarine tubs; microwaveable disposable take-away containers; disposable cups; soft drink bottle caps; plates. Tm = 173;[48] Tg = -10[48] 1.5-2[41]
Polystyrene (PS) Versatility, clarity, easily formed Egg cartons; packing peanuts; disposable cups, plates, trays and cutlery; disposable take-away containers Tm = 240 (only isotactic);[43] Tg = 100 (atactic and isotactic)[43] 3-3.5[41]
Other (often polycarbonate or ABS) Dependent on polymers or combination of polymers Beverage bottles, baby milk bottles. Non-packaging uses for polycarbonate, compact discs, "unbreakable" glazing, electronic apparatus housing, lenses (including sunglasses), prescription glasses, automotive headlamps, riot shields, instrument panels.[49] Polycarbonate: Tg = 145;[50] Tm = 225[51] Polycarbonate: 2.6;[41] ABS plastics: 2.3[41]

United States

Low national plastic recycling rates have been due to the complexity of sorting and processing, unfavorable economics, and consumer confusion about which plastics can actually be recycled.[52] Part of the confusion has been due to the use of the resin identification code[53] which is not on all plastic parts but just a subset[54] that includes the recycling symbol as part of its design. The resin identification code is stamped or printed on the bottom of containers and surrounded by a triangle of arrows. (See the table in Plastic.) The intent of these symbols was to make it easier to identify the type of plastics used to make a particular container and to indicate that the plastic is potentially recyclable. The question that remains is which types of plastics can be recycled by local recycling centers. In many communities, not all types of plastics are accepted for sidewalk recycling collection programs due to the high processing costs and complexity of the equipment required to recycle certain materials. There is also sometimes a seemingly low demand for the recycled product depending on a recycling center's proximity to entities seeking recycled materials. Another major barrier is that the cost to recycle certain materials and the corresponding market price for those materials sometimes does not present any opportunity for profit. The best example of this is polystyrene (commonly called styrofoam), although some communities, like Brookline, Massachusetts, are moving toward banning the distribution of polystyrene containers by local food and coffee businesses.[55][56]

See also


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