How Plastic is Recycled - Recycling Process and Data

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Plastic is one of the most polluting elements that we can find. Its accumulation causes serious damage, both in flora and fauna (especially microplastics) and modifies the abiotic elements of the ecosystem. For a few decades, humans have been trying to improve this problem through methods such as reduction, reuse and recycling, although it is not an easy task on a global level.

In this article, we will focus on the part related to recycling. So, Green Ecologist reveals you below how plastic is recycled.

What plastics are recyclable

Not all plastics are recyclable, since the materials of which they are composed do not allow them to be recast to form new deposits of raw material. To identify and separate recyclable plastics we are guided by the Plastic Identification Code or RIC (Resin Identification Code). This code classifies recyclable plastics into 7 categories main according to their nature. We can identify those containers that are easy to recycle using this code.

However, not everything that reaches the yellow bucket is capable of being recycled: many citizens, undoubtedly with good intentions, fill the bucket with plastics that do not carry this RIC code. In addition, when there is a mixture with other substances, the recycling process becomes difficult and they obtain lower yields. This is also relevant for other products where plastic is mixed with other components, such as wood chip.

For further information, we recommend you read this other article which explains which plastics are recycled and which are not, through the RIC code.

Plastic recycling process

Before the plastic is recycled need to go through 5 stages so that it can be used in the manufacture of various products:

  1. Classification and separation: Each plastic object is separated depending on its type, so that it can be processed.
  2. Washed: Once the separation has been made, the plastic waste has to be properly washed to remove impurities, such as labels and stickers. This improves the quality of the final product.
  3. Chopped: After washing, the plastic waste is loaded onto conveyor belts that pass it through different shredders. These machines chop the plastic into small pieces.
  4. Identification and separation of plastic: These portions go through a second classification system using physical techniques, to define their quality and class.
  5. Extrusion: In this process, the chopped plastic is melted and then it is extruded into so-called "pellets", or small cubes or regular pills of a specific plastic. These pellets are used as raw material, that is, they can be used to extrude new plastic products. Extrusion can be carried out in various ways, in which in addition to melting, other processes are introduced to purify the final raw material.

As to other plastic recycling processes, there are two main types used in the industry:

  • In monomers: Elaborate and precise, the polymerization reaction is reversed to be able to recycle the same type of condensed polymer. Not only is matter purified, but a new shorter polymer is obtained that can be used in various ways by subsequent physical and chemical transformations.
  • Heat compression: This type of plastic recycling is acquiring special demand in the US, Australia and Japan due to its ability to recycle all types of plastics at the same time, avoiding all separation and classification processes. Take the clean portions and melt all together. Although the process is simpler, the final product is of lower quality.

To give you a clearer example of recycling, in this other post we talk about The recycling process of a plastic bottle.

How to recycle plastic at home

At home we can use various strategies to improve our plastic consumption: remember that the first thing is reduce consumption and reuse plastics. To reduce we can buy in bulk, use cloth bags, thermos instead of single-use coffee cups, tuppers instead of precooked food (our health will appreciate it), use oil cans and other containers for various uses, use menstrual cups in Instead of pads and tampons, don't buy things we don't need… the possibilities are endless.

Directly related to the idea of reducing waste, the Zero waste or zero waste. Here you can learn all about the Zero waste movement: what it is and how to be it.

Likewise, we can reuse packaging on a routine basis. However, reducing and reusing has a limit. We then propose several crafts to recycle plastics:

  • Toys: recycling can become a source of fun for the little ones, who can also learn the value of recycling by making their own toys.
  • Ornaments and accessories: there are multiple examples of jewelry, sculpture, home decorations, etc. with recycled plastic materials. Develop your creativity and find your own way.

One of the easiest plastics to reuse are bottle caps, so here you can learn about several Ideas to recycle plastic bottle caps.

If you have been wanting to know more about How to recycle plastic at home, here we leave you more tips and useful ideas.

How much plastic is recycled

According to the latest data available from the Ministry for Ecological Transition[1], in Spain there were more than 1,500,000 tons of plastics, of which approximately 45% were recycled, and practically all of the remaining plastic underwent energy recovery (incineration under controlled conditions with use of the excess heat energy). However, these data do not include plastics that have not been managed by a public entity, for example plastic accumulated in illegal landfills.

As for the world as a whole, the data are bleak. In 2022 the first global study of all plastics ever produced was published. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons total produced, 6.3 have been transformed into waste, of which only 9% has been recycled.

Various studies and reports continue to be carried out, and one of the most recognized among those published in recent years is The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics from World Economic Forum[2].

If you want to read more articles similar to How plastic is recycled, we recommend that you enter our Recycling and waste management category.

  1. Ministry for the Ecological Transition. Annual report on waste generation and management:
  2. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics from World Economic Forum:
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