Unrecycled plastic debris is becoming an increasing issue. Plastic bags end up in trees and bushes, filling with water and becoming a breeding ground for insects, or they end up polluting the ocean and decreasing the value of life of the organisms living there. Plastic bottles are discarded improperly and end up on the streets or sidewalks or taking up valuable space in a landfill that could otherwise be devoted to non-recyclable items. One recent study found that the amount of plastics in the ocean is likely much higher than was previously believed, as high winds push lightweight plastics deep below the ocean’s surface to depths that were previously untested. This overflow of plastic debris has led to a variety of actions taken to eliminate the negative environmental impact. Cities worldwide are imposing plastic bag fees or bans, PET bottle bans and introducing new plastic recycling plants.
One such plastic recycling plant was recently opened in Mt. Helens, Oregon. Pacific PET Recycling LLC is the first PET recycling plant to open in the Pacific Northwest. The plant is expected to process 14 million pounds of PET plastic in 2012 and 30 million pounds of PET per year once it is fully operational. Pacific PET Recycling LLC is a joint venture between plastics recycler Denton Plastics Inc., Quantum Leap LLC, and the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, and its founders expect it to be a prototype for the technology and methods used in plastic recycling in the future.
The plastics are received at the facility after being first collected and sorted at a material recovery facility (MRF). An MRF is a plant that receives, separates and prepares recyclable materials for end-user manufacturers The materials travel on a conveying system manned by workers known as pickers who are each assigned to pick a different type of material off the line, thus separating waste from recyclables and commingled recyclables into groups of plastic, aluminum, glass, paper, etc. At the beginning of the recycling process, plastics must first be separated according to category of resin content (1-7). Most plastic reclaimers use automated machines to do this using near infrared technology. Plastic recycling plants then send the whole pieces of plastic through some form of size-reduction machine, such as a shredder, granulator or hammermill. These take plastics down to a manageable and consistent size, preparing them to be melted down and molded into new plastic products.
Once reduced to small flakes, recycled plastics can easily be molded into a variety of new products. Most often, recycled plastics are formed into new plastic products such as plastic tables and chairs, polar fleece, carpeting, picnic tables, bottles, fences, floor tiles and pens. One growing trend for the reuse of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic containers- the most commonly consumed plastic that makes up beverage containers, mouthwash bottles, salad dressing containers and other similar items, is to create fabrics used in the clothing industry. The fabrics are created by spinning the PET flakes into thread and yarn.
PET is also sometimes formed into new PET containers. Recycling the plastic this way is popular among beverage and bottling companies looking to increase their sustainability. One example of this is Coca-Cola’s joint venture with ECO Plastics to open Lincolnshire, England-based Continuum Recycling. The plant, expected to process 150,000 tonnes of mixed plastics a year, including 40,000 tonnes of bottle-grade rPET, will help Coca-Cola achieve its goal of each plastic drink bottle made from 25% recycled PET by the end of 2012. The Continuum Recycling plant is said to be the largest and most sophisticated plastic recycling facility in the world and will save around 33,500 tonnes of CO2 annually through reprocessing the plastic rather than landfilling it and creating new.
Overall the quantity of plastics recycled has increased every year since 1990. 2.2 million tons of plastics were recycled in the U.S. in 2008. Because plastics are not biodegradable like other landfilled items, not recycling them leads to landfill overflow. These plastic items take up unnecessary space in landfills that could be devoted to other, non-recyclable items. As more and more cities and states learn from their success, plastic recycling rates will only continue to grow.