Does plastic really get recycled?

What can be recycled and what can’t

And we don’t deny that they are right. Because with certain materials, such as paper, glass or stainless steel, recycling works quite well (albeit at an extra energy cost to the planet that is not often mentioned either).

It’s time to go to the supermarket. As soon as you pass the checkouts and enter the fruit store you see them: polystyrene trays surrounded by low-intensity polyethylene film hugging a couple of apples. You walk past and get to the beverage section. PET water bottles with polypropylene caps greet you as you pass. You take another turn to finish your shopping and at the end of your tour you come across hundreds of cleaning products in high-density polyethylene jugs.

There are many plastics and not all of them are easily recyclable, actually only 4 types of plastic are “recycled”. But, there are 80,000 types of plastic resins, which means that to properly recycle each type of plastic would require thousands of different recycling processes. In fact, plastics such as those we see every day in bags, kitchen film, food trays, or protective materials such as “polystyrene”, are extremely difficult to recycle. Others such as nylon or polyester from clothing are not recyclable at all.

Oil bottles can be recycled

It is a screaming truth: some of the plastics we throw into the yellow garbage can are not recycled. The characteristics of the waste and the complexity of the recycling systems mean that, in many cases, giving them a second life is not profitable.

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To make products in general, and plastics in particular, recyclable, it is very important that the materials that make them up can be separated from each other. For this reason, different types of plastic, such as PET, high-density polyethylene and film, are treated separately in recycling plants.

However, although it is not obvious at first glance, some plastic products consist of several layers with different properties. These are known as multi-layer plastics or multi-material plastics, found, for example, in food trays, yogurt lids and potato chip bags, which also include a layer of aluminum.

At this point, a question often arises: if they are so difficult to recycle, why are they used? The truth is that the use of these multi-layered materials has many advantages. For starters, they keep out moisture and oxygen, making them practical for food preservation. In addition, they take up little space and weigh very little, so the energy required for transporting them is reduced. “The same could be done with glass, but it would weigh much more and the emissions linked to the transport of goods would skyrocket,” adds the UPM professor, highlighting the complexity of the problem at the environmental level.

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Glass is recycled

Plastic is one of the materials we use most in our daily lives and one of those that produces the greatest amount of waste. Currently, its use is very diverse because it has a versatility that allows us to manufacture clothing accessories, kitchen or personal hygiene items, furniture, home decoration elements, etc.

Generally, plastics are manufactured with resin polymers mixed with substances that come from petroleum and are molded by pressure and heat. Depending on how this molding is carried out, we can obtain different types of plastic which, in turn, have different physical and mechanical properties (greater or lesser flexibility, hardness, insulating capacity, etc.). Similarly, depending on their properties, you will know which plastics are recycled or not.

Before knowing which plastics are recycled, you need to understand the plastic waste recycling process: although it is relatively simple. The path begins at the yellow garbage cans, from where the plastics are taken to sorting plants.

Because plastic can be recycled

It is increasingly common that, when using plastic packaging, a series of doubts arise: is it a recyclable material? What do I have to do to recycle this packaging? What will the recycled material obtained be used for?

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The first thing to do to recycle a container is to check what type of plastic material it is made of and whether it is recyclable. Later sections of this article will show how to differentiate and classify plastics, as well as which ones are recyclable. Then, if it is a recyclable material, simply dispose of the containers in the yellow container.

Once the recyclable plastics have been separated, they are thoroughly cleaned to remove any remaining labels or their original contents. The plastic is then shredded and melted, resulting in resin pellets that are the raw material for new plastic products.

From the above classification, the materials that can be recycled are PET, HDPE, LDPE and PP. This means that most bottles, plates and cups, caps for containers, trays, etc. can be recycled and should be deposited in the yellow container.