How To Recycle Plastic In Australia – What You Need To Know!
If you are a regular reader of our blogs here at Waster – you are probably getting a bit sick of our obsession with plastic – and the turmoil it is causing in the global environment. I realised I have spoken over and over about the problems with plastic usage – but never actually covered how to recycle plastic in Australia – or how many times plastic can actually be recycled.
For most of our blogs – I find a topic that interests me – and then do some research on it. I then share it all with you kind people!
Today – we will be asking how you recycle plastic in Australia (or anywhere) – how the plastic recycling process works – and can it carry on over and over i.e. can it ever be “sustainable”. See our recent blog on compostable packaging and its pros and cons.
About Waster and how we can help your business
Waster is an Australian waste management and recycling business with real differences. We work with small and medium companies – and provide all waste and recycling services (from general waste – to commingled, cardboard bins and services such as medical waste or sanitary services.
Find out more by chatting to us online – or click below to see pricing and ts and cs.
My big questions about how one can recycle plastic in Australia are:
– How is it actually done – i.e. what plastics are recyclable and details on the plastic recycling process
– Does it use lots of energy – i.e. what is the environmental impact of the plastic recycling process.
– How many times can plastic actually be recycled – i.e. does it degrade over time – or can it basically be recycled again and again
Let’s find out!
How to recycle plastic in Australia
Whether we are talking about soft plastic recycling (i.e. wrapping, bags etc), plastic bottle recycling or whether just can plastic be recycled – we need an understanding of the actual plastic recycling process that is followed.
According to Wikipedia:
“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.”
It appears that there are clear problems from the outset:
“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.”
The plastic recycling process:
Once the plastic waste is collected – it needs to be sorted – depending on plastic recycling codes or testing.
According to the website: www.conserve-energy-future.com:
“After sorting the plastics, the next step is to cut the plastics into tiny chunks or pieces. The plastic bottles and containers are then ground and cut into tiny pieces or flakes. The heavier and lighter plastic flakes are separated using a specially designed machine. The separation process helps in ensuring that the different plastics are not put together or mixed up in the final product. Remember that different plastics are used to make different items.”
“After a complete separation, the flakes or chunks are then washed with detergents to remove the remaining contamination. Once the cleaning process is complete, the clean flakes are passed through specialized equipment that further separates the plastic resin types. The plastic flakes are then subjected to moderate heat to dry.”
“The dry flakes are melted down. They can be melted down and molded into a new shape or they are melted down and processed into granules. The melting process is done under regulated temperatures. There is specialized equipment designed to melt down plastic without destroying them.”
Making of pellets
“After the melting process, the plastic pieces are then compressed into tiny pellets known as nurdles. In this state, the plastic pellets are ready for reuse or be redesigned into new plastic products. It is important to point out that recycled plastic is hardly used to make identical plastic item or its previous form. It is in this pellet form that plastics are transported to plastic manufacturing companies to be redesigned and be used in making other useful plastic products.”
Can the plastic be recycled again and again?
It appears that plastic can not be recycled indefinitely – i.e. a bottle will not become a bottle again and again – but lower grade items like park furniture, clothing etc.
Dr Karl Williams, head of the centre for waste management at the University of Central Lancashire stated
“A plastic is made up of very long chains, and every time you process them these chains will break, and as they break the plastic is degrading. So there is a finite time that you can keep recycling the plastic.”
Recyclers add new or virgin plastic to the mix – to make the product stronger – and hence long lasting.
“I can’t say its 10, 20 or 30 times, but it’s quite a lot. But there is a finite limit on how often you can do it.”
The clear plastic used in water bottles tends to be of high quality, he explains, and when recycled material is added to virgin plastic, it’s being “up-cycled.”
When the quality decreases sufficiently – it will be used for items like plastic decking, park furniture etc.
Recycling up to 10 times is possible – with the quality of the polymers decreasing each time – and requiring more virgin plastic to be added.
How much plastic is actually recycled globally?
The actual rate of plastic recycling globally remains very low – certainly compared to other commodities such as paper, cardboard or metal.
“Wikipedia tells us : As of 2015, approximately 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. In 2016 only 14% of plastic waste was recycled globally.”
These low rates are of course alongside ever increasing rates of plastic production – as plastic becomes used in every country and every aspect of modern 21st century life. You can see a blog here on burning plastic waste.
Conclusion on recycling plastic
Whilst recycling plastic – soft plastic recycling, plastic bottle recycling etc – can be greatly improved by using better and clearer plastic recycling codes – and changing the composition of plastic – the chances we have of recycling the majority of plastic is very low indeed.
The issues with how many times plastic can be recycled, and the types of common plastics that are tricky to recycle at all – make this obvious.
We are left with the two big issues – that Australia does not really want to tackle – do we stop using plastic – or do we accept incineration as a viable solution?
The calorific value of thrown away plastic is huge – and could mean our reliance on fossil fuels like coal and gas would be greatly reduced. Afterall – lots of this plastic is heading straight to landfill currently – a pretty poor outcome.