How is Plastic Recycled?

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  • Written By: Diana Bocco
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 January 2020
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Many people wonder what happens to the plastic containers they deposit in curbside recycling, bring to redemption centers, or drop into recycle bins in classrooms and offices all over the world. The plastic recycling process requires several steps to turn discarded plastic into new products. One thing that people should be aware of when thinking about this process is that the plastics are usually downstreamed. In other words, instead of turning old yogurt containers into new yogurt containers, the material from the original container is used to make a different type of product, because it cannot be used in the same way twice.

The first step is sorting out the different types of recyclable products at a recycling facility. Many regions use single stream recycling, in which all items are collected at once, so first it's necessary to separate out basic categories like paper, plastics, and metals. Next, the plastic needs to be sorted for recycling.

During sorting, plastic is divided by type. Some facilities will only process certain types of products, which means that items they can't handle may be sold to another facility that can handle them, or put into a landfill, depending on company policy. Consumers who are worried about whether or not their plastics will be recycled may want to ask their recycling company about what they do with items they cannot process.


After sorting, the plastic is ground into chips or flakes. At this point, it is usually mixed with a lot of impurities, including pieces of labels, bits of the material the plastic once held, and so forth. As a result, it needs to be washed in a bath that will get the plastic clean, before it is dried and then melted. Once melted, the material is formed into pellets known as nurdles.

The nurdles can be used as feedstock for other manufacturing processes. For example, they can be turned into fibers to make products such as artificial fleece, or they can be worked into engineered wood products, used to make carpeting, and utilized in the production of products like floor mats and tiles. Companies that want to use recycled plastic can buy these pellets by the truckload for various applications.

Plastic recycling is not simple. One problem is that dyes can contaminate the material, making it difficult and sometimes impossible to recycle. Plastics can also be contaminated with impurities like heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and pieces of biodegradeable plastic that accidentally get mixed in with items made from petroleum. Recyclers attempt to identify these impurities before they contaminate an entire batch, but this is not always possible.

While recycling is definitely a good thing to do, it does not necessarily reduce the demand for virgin plastic. Products made with virgin plastic usually cannot be made from recycled materials. Recycling plastic does reduce the demand for other resources, however. For example, by making engineered lumber with plastic, it is possible to save trees.


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Post 47

I work at an independent recycling facility as a sorter. It is an incredibly horrible job. There are 14 of us picked four or five days a week. All are either homeless, druggies, alcoholic, crazy or criminal. I am paid $70 cash at the end of the day. I wear a respirator I put together myself, but most use nothing or the paper mask the company offers. All I know is our plastic is shipped to China and its cost is 10x that of cardboard.

Post 39

I actually think what will end up happening is that we simply will stop using so much plastic. I mean, most of it comes from petroleum which is going to get more and more expensive. And there are cheap alternatives now that don't pollute in the same way.

For example, I read an article recently on how they are developing food wrappers from food. Edible wrappers. So each sweet is still individually wrapped, but you can eat the wrapper as well.

Post 38

@anon103478 - That massive swirling waste dump of plastic in the middle of the Pacific is so depressing, isn't it? And, unfortunately, there is almost nothing we can do about it right now, since the plastic pieces are often so small they've worked themselves right into the environment.

All we can really do, is to make sure no more plastic goes there, especially on an individual level. If you don't recycle as much as possible, you can't expect your neighbor to do so. And then, once you and your neighbors are doing it, you can start putting pressure on the local councils to start making plastic recycling centers more ubiquitous and maybe even mandatory.

As for the plastic in the ocean

, personally I think what is going to have to happen is that someone comes up with a bacteria that will eat plastic, or some kind of technology that will get rid of it in another way. At our current levels of technology, there's just no way to really remove it all.
Post 37

@anon188053 - It depends on how it is done, I suppose. If it's done with heat from a clean power source, I can't imagine it creates much carbon, since plastic melts at fairly low temperature (it will even melt in the sun sometimes).

It might give off gases when it melts though, it's difficult to tell. Unfortunately, we don't have a perfect solution to this kind of waste yet, although waste plastic recycling is better than just chucking the plastic out.

Post 26

does the melting not produce carbon emissions?

Post 25

what would happen if nylon were mixed with lldpe during the recycle process?

Post 21

How long does it take to recycle the plastic?

Post 20

I just wanted to say that I'm completing a complex process essay for English class on recycling plastics, and this article helped greatly. Thanks for the reliable information.

Post 19

My understanding coming from a good source is that nobody wants plastic for recycling. Any that is collected for recycling is sent to China and they process it for recycling. It takes a great deal of fossil fuel to get it there. So one consequence is air pollution.

Post 17

Are there different processes or systems that used and discarded plastic materials (any kind and classifications) be converted into fuel to run automobiles and other gas guzzlers?

Post 16

If melting plastic is not any harm to the environment, tell me how can it be recycled (pollution free).

Post 15

So what can we do? I've seen pics of huge areas of plastic on the ocean and seen what it can do to fish, birds, turtles. It isn't really recyclable, so how do we slow down the damage?

Post 14

What about plastics that have degraded? Most people think that plastic lasts forever, however my industry often sees polycarbonate plastics wrongly exposed the alkaline detergents and they break down. Can this degraded plastic still be recycled?

Post 2

What are different ways to recycle plastic?

Post 1

"We have already done quite a bit of research into the recycled material and the trouble with that available in the market today is that it is significantly more brittle than new material and comes in unappealing grayish dark colours not the clinical white you are getting today – it is not suitable currently"

Can anyone this true???

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