Science

How does the plastic recycling process work?

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Plastic production has grown steadily in recent decades, from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 359 million tons in 2018; of course, the amount of plastic waste increases in the same way. Almost three-quarters of the garbage found on the world’s beaches is plastic (containers, bottles, lids, etc.) and 5 trillion pieces of plastic float in the oceans. It is estimated that by 2050, all species of seabirds will ingest plastic regularly. To limit the damage, it is crucial to increase the recycling rate of plastic waste. But how exactly is this process carried out?

Almost a third of plastic waste is recycled in Europe, but 25% is deposited in landfills; France is a poor student, with a packaging waste recycling rate of less than 30%. The three main sources of plastic waste in the European Union are packaging (around 40%), the construction sector (around 20%) and the sector made up of plastics for domestic or professional use (household appliances, furniture, medical equipment , etc.) . Since January 1, 2021, the sale and supply of certain single-use plastic products (cutlery, plates, glasses, straws, stirrers, etc.) has been gradually banned.

In 2019, globally, researchers estimated that plastic production and incineration released more than 850 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By 2050, these emissions could reach 2.8 billion tonnes, a figure that could be significantly reduced through better recycling. However, the wide variety of plastics that are discarded complicates the recycling process, increases costs, and impacts the quality of the finished product.

Different families of plastics.

Recycling begins with sorting the waste. To be effective, it is necessary to distinguish between the different types of plastics that exist. For this, it is necessary to rely on the classification implemented by the plastics industry in the eighties; takes the form of a logo, a Möbius triangle, which indicates that the product is recyclable. But beware, this does not in any way mean that it is necessarily recycled!

Inside this triangle there is a number, which indicates the composition of the plastic; There are a total of seven categories of recyclable plastics and so far only two of them are recycled anywhere in France: numbers 1 and 2, corresponding respectively to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). These are usually bottles of water and milk, bottles of cosmetic products (shower gel, shampoo, etc.) and household products (detergents, detergents, etc.).

Currently, almost a third of plastic waste is recycled in the European Union. © EU / EP

Other plastic containers (PVC, polypropylene, polystyrene, etc.) do not contain enough raw material, so recycling is not economically viable. The best way to recover this waste is to incinerate it to recover thermal energy. Note that several municipalities benefit from the “Extension of Sorting Instructions” (ECT), which encourages users to recycle all their plastic packaging (including plastic bags and film, yogurt jars, food trays , etc.).

Once collected by the household waste collection services, these plastics arrive at the sorting center where they are classified by families (PET, HDPE, polypropylene, etc.), then they are compacted in the form of huge bundles, called “bales”. Of plastic “. They are then transported, depending on their nature, to a regeneration plant (or directly to an incineration plant).

Grinding, cleaning, purification.

As part of the regeneration, the plastics in the bales are cleaned, shredded and then softened. This results in tiny plastic flakes, which are washed in hot water and detergent to remove all impurities (such as glue and label residue). To improve the quality of the flakes, regenerators sometimes perform an additional purification step by optical sorting.

Note that PET flakes are often mixed with HDPE flakes (which come from bottle caps). To separate them we use a flotation system, because these two materials do not have the same density. Then the flakes are heated to high temperature (around 280 ° C) to become granules. These are what recycling plants use to produce new plastic items. The PET granules are then purified by polycondensation.

Please note that each type of granule is recycled for a specific use. HDPE granules are used, for example, in the manufacture of children’s showers, hoses or car seats. PET granules are used for the (synthetic) filling of duvets, pillows or teddy bears, to make new packaging (bottles), garments in “fleece” material, etc.

Recycling (too) delegated

While all industrialized countries have recycling centers, they are unable to handle the huge amounts of garbage produced by their inhabitants. That is why they have long exported a large part of their plastic waste, particularly to China, Thailand and Malaysia. Until 2018, more than half of the waste exported worldwide was sent to China (which lacked plastic to power its own industry).

The problem that quickly arose was that many arrivals were made up of mixed, unsorted waste, some of which was impossible to recycle. As a result, unusable plastics have accumulated, causing dramatic ecological consequences throughout Southeast Asia. Thus, China ended up banning the import of plastic (among other wastes) and the global recycling network gradually moved to Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The countries that dumped their waste have each committed to finding other solutions: some have turned to incineration, others are trying to develop their recycling capacities, others are raising the price of packaging to offset costs, and so on.

The French government, for its part, has pledged to achieve a 100% recycled plastic rate by 2025. Meanwhile, the most effective way to combat the rise in plastic waste remains to reduce purchases of plastic packaging or products. To do this, it is necessary to give maximum priority to “bulk” food purchases, to manufacture your own household products and to prohibit the use of single-use plastic objects.

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