Plastic recycling is the process of recovering scrap or waste plastic and reprocessing the material into useful products. Plastic recycling can reduce dependence on landfill, conserve resources and protect the environment from plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Increasing public awareness of plastic pollution has raised demand for plastic recycling, but it remains challenging from a technical and economic standpoint, causing it to lag behind the recycling rates of materials like aluminium, glass and paper. In general, there are many types of plastic and these need to be segregated from one another prior to recycling as they give a poor-quality product if mixed. Even when properly sorted and cleaned, the most common form of recycling in which plastic is re-melted and reformed into new items, usually results in polymer degradation at a chemical level, so that quality cannot be maintained. More advanced technologies which may mitigate this degradation suffer from high capital costs and are more energy hungry. Thus, even though recycling rates are improving, much of this activity merely delays rather than prevents the eventual disposal of plastic as waste. Regardless, life-cycle assessments show recycling in its various forms to be a net good for the environment.
Since the beginning of plastic production in the 20th century, until 2015, the world has produced some 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste, of which 9% has been recycled—only ~1% of total plastic has ever been recycled more than once. The global recycling rate in 2015 was 19.5%, while 25.5% was incinerated and the remaining 55% disposed of to landfill. Only ~2% was recycled in a sustainable closed-loop manner. As of 2019, due to limitations in economic viability, there is little incentive for companies to make a meaningful contribution to the plastic recycling supply chain. The plastics industry has known since the 1970s that recycling of most plastics is unlikely because of these economic limitations. However, the industry has continued to lobby for the expansion of recycling programs while at the same time increasing the amount of virgin plastic being produced.
Almost all plastic is non-biodegradable and thus causes systematic harm to natural ecosystems. For example, approximately 8 million tons of waste plastic enter the Earth's oceans every year, causing damage to the aquatic ecosystem and large ocean garbage patches. Recycling and other forms of utilisation, such as energy recovery, can be part of reducing plastic in the waste stream, but does not alleviate the environmental unsustainability of the plastics industry.
Although plastics were known before the 20th century, large-scale production was not realised until WWII. With metal supplies allocated towards military use and an increased demand for high-performance materials, these hitherto untested synthetic alternatives became appealing. Nylon replaced silk in parachutes, while Perspex was a light-weight alternative to glass in aeroplanes. After the war these processes were commercialised rapidly, with the plastic age beginning from around 1950, greatly aided by the post-war economic boom.
Global environmental movements in the 1960s and 1970s led to the formation of environmental agencies in many jurisdictions, including the U.S. (EPA, 1970), EU (DG ENV, 1973) Australia (EPA, 1971) and Japan (JEA 1971). In this atmosphere of environmental awareness, plastic waste came under scrutiny. The earliest major development to abate plastic pollution was arguably the 1973 and 1978 MARPOL agreement, whose Annex V completely banned the dumping of plastics into the ocean.
Plastic industry lobbying
As the threat of more regulation from the environmental movement grew, the plastics industry responded with lobbying to preserve their business interests. In the U.S., the Resource Recovery Act, passed in 1970, directed the nation towards recycling and energy recovery. By 1976, there had been more than a thousand attempts to pass legislation to ban or tax packaging, including plastics. The plastics industry responded by lobbying for plastic to be recycled. This involved a $50 million per year campaign through organisations such as Keep America Beautiful with the message that plastic could and would be recycled, as well as lobbying for the establishment of curbside recycling collections.
However, petrochemical industry leaders understood plastic could not be economically recycled using the technology of the time. For example, an April 1973 report written by industry scientists for industry executive states that, "There is no recovery from obsolete products" and that, "A degradation of resin properties and performance occurs during the initial fabrication, through aging, and in any reclamation process." The report concluded that sorting the plastic is "infeasible". The scientific community also knew this, with contemporary reports highlighting numerous technical barriers.
Globally, plastic waste was almost entirely disposed of via landfill until the start of the 1980s when rates of incineration increased. Although better technology was known, these early incinerators often lacked advanced combustors or emission-control systems, leading to the release of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds. The replacement or upgrading of these facilities to cleaner ones with waste-to-energy recovery has been gradual.
It was not until the late 1980s that plastic recycling began in earnest. In 1988 the U.S. Society of the Plastics Industry created the Council for Solid Waste Solutions as a trade association to sell the idea of plastic recycling to the public. The association lobbied American municipalities to launch or expand plastic waste collection programs and to lobby U.S. states to require the labelling of plastic containers and products with recycling symbols. This coincided with their introduction of resin identification codes in 1988, which provided a standard system for the identification of various polymer types at materials recovery facilities, where plastic sorting was still largely performed by hand. At the same time, increasing globalisation allowed the export of plastic waste from advanced economies to developing and middle-income ones, where it could be sorted and recycled more inexpensively. Annual global trade in plastic waste began to increase rapidly from 1993 onwards.
Recent international trade limitations
Many governments count items as recycled if they have been exported for that purpose, however this exported plastic waste can be mishandled, allowing it to enter the environment as plastic pollution. By 2016 about 14 Mt of all plastic waste intended for recycling was exported, with China taking around half of it (7.35 million tonnes). However, much of this was low quality mixed plastic which was hard to sort and recycle and ended up accumulating in landfills and at recyclers, or being dumped. In 2017, China began restricting waste plastics imports in Operation National Sword. Europe and North America suffered from extreme waste stream backlogs, and waste plastic ended up being exported to other countries mostly in South East Asia, like Vietnam and Malaysia, but also to places like Turkey and India with less stringent environmental regulations. In 2019, international trade in plastic waste became regulated under the Basel Convention.
Production and recycling rates
The total amount of plastic ever produced worldwide, until 2015, is estimated to be 8.3 billion tonnes. Approximately 6.3 billion tonnes of this has been discarded as waste, of which around 79% has accumulated in landfills or the natural environment, 12% was incinerated, and 9% has been recycled, although only ~1% of all plastic has ever been recycled more than once.
By 2015 global production had reached some 381 Mt per year, greater than the combined weight of everyone on Earth. The recycling rate in that year was 19.5%, while 25.5% was incinerated and the remaining 55% disposed of, largely to landfill. These rates lag far behind those of other recyclables, such as paper, metal and glass. Although the percentage of material being recycled or incinerated is increasing each year, the tonnage of waste left-over also continues to rise. This is because global plastic production is still increasing year-on-year. Left unchecked, production could reach ~800 Mt per year by 2040, although implementing all feasible interventions could reduce plastic pollution by 40% from 2016 rates.
A focus on global averages can disguise the fact that recycling rates also vary between types of plastic. Different plastics exist, each having distinct chemical and physical properties. This leads to differences in the ease with which they can be sorted and reprocessed; as such, recycling rates vary. PET bottles and HDPE have the highest recycling rates, whereas others such as polystyrene foam are sometimes not recycled at all.
The percentage of plastic that can be fully recycled, rather than downcycled or go to waste, can be increased when manufacturers of packaged goods minimise mixing of packaging materials and eliminate contaminants. The Association of Plastics Recyclers has issued a "Design Guide for Recyclability".
Asia and Africa
Japan's plastic waste utilisation rate stood at 39% in 1996, increasing to 73% in 2006, 77% in 2011, 83% in 2014 and 86% in 2017, according to the nation's Plastic Waste Management Institute. The high utilisation rate there is due to using approaches beyond recycling, such as incineration (referred to as a "thermal recycling"), for plastic itself is a fuel and it reduces the oil consumption of incinerators.
The Ocean Conservancy reported China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam dump more plastic in the sea than all other countries combined. Scientific American reported China dumps 30% of all plastics in the ocean, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
In 2015, the United States produced 34.5 million tons of plastic, which was about 13% of total waste. About 9% of that was recycled. Most of the waste stream is biodegradable, but plastic – though only 13% of the waste stream – is persistent and accumulates.
In many communities, not all types of plastics are accepted for sidewalk recycling collection programs because of the high processing costs and complexity of the equipment required to recycle certain materials. There is sometimes a seemingly low demand for the recycled product depending on a recycling centre's proximity to entities seeking recycled materials. Another major barrier is that the cost to recycle certain materials and the corresponding market price for those materials sometimes does not present any opportunity for profit. The best example of this is polystyrene (commonly called Styrofoam). Some communities, like Brookline, Massachusetts, are moving toward banning the distribution of polystyrene containers by local food and coffee businesses.
Many plastic items bare symbols identifying the type of polymer from which they are made. These resin identification codes, often abbreviated RICs, are used internationally, and were originally developed in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry (now the Plastics Industry Association) in the United States, but since 2008 have been administered by ASTM International, a standards organisation.
RICs are not mandatory in all countries, but many producers voluntarily mark their products, anyway. More than half of U.S. states have enacted laws that require plastic products be identifiable. There are seven codes in all, six for the most common commodity plastics and one as a catch-all for everything else. The EU maintains a similar nine-code list which also includes ABS and polyamides. RICs are clearly based on the recycling symbol and have drawn criticism for causing consumer confusion, as it implies the item will always be recyclable when this is not necessarily the case.
RICs are not particularly important for single-stream recycling, as these operations are increasingly automated. However, in some countries citizens are required to separate their plastic waste according to polymer type before refuse collection and for this RICs are very useful. For instance, in Japan PET bottles are collected separately for recycling.
|Plastic identification code||Type of plastic polymer||Properties||Common applications||Melting- and glass transition temperatures (°C)||Young's modulus (GPa)|
|Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)||Clarity, strength, toughness, barrier to gas and moisture.||Soft drink, water and salad dressing bottles; peanut butter and jam jars; ice cream cone lids; small non-industrial electronics||Tm = 250; Tg = 76||2–2.7|
|High-density polyethylene (HDPE)||Stiffness, strength, toughness, moisture resistance , gas permeability||Water pipes, gas and fire pipelines, electrical and communications conduits, five gallon buckets, milk, juice and water bottles, grocery bags, some toiletry bottles||Tm = 130; Tg = −125||0.8|
|Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)||Versatility, ease of blending, strength, toughness.||Stretch wrap for non-food items, sometimes blister packaging. Non-packaging uses include electrical cable insulation, rigid piping and vinyl records.||Tm = 240; Tg = 85||2.4–4.1|
|Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)||Ease of processing; strength; flexibility; ease of sealing; moisture barrier.||Frozen food bags; squeezable bottles, e.g. honey, mustard; cling films; flexible container lids||Tm = 120; Tg = −125||0.17–0.28|
|Polypropylene (PP)||Strength; resistance to heat, chemicals, grease and oil; moisture barrier.||Reusable microwaveable ware or take-away containers; kitchenware; yogurt or margerine containers; disposable cups and plates; soft drink bottle caps.||Tm = 173; Tg = −10||1.5–2|
|Polystyrene (PS)||Versatility, clarity, easily formed||Egg cartons; packing peanuts; disposable cups, plates, trays and cutlery; disposable take-away containers||Tm = 240 (only isotactic); Tg = 100 (atactic and isotactic)||3–3.5|
|Other (often polycarbonate or ABS)||Dependent on polymers or combination of polymers||Beverage bottles, baby milk bottles. Non-packaging uses for polycarbonate: compact discs, "unbreakable" glazing, electronic apparatus housing, lenses (including sunglasses), instrument panels.||Polycarbonate: Tg = 145; Tm = 225||Polycarbonate: 2.6; ABS plastics: 2.3|
Collecting and sorting
Recycling begins with the collection and sorting of waste. Curbside collection operates in many counties, with the collections being sent to a materials recovery facility or MBT plant where the plastic is separated, cleaned and sorted for sale. Anything not deemed suitable for recycling will then be sent for landfill or incineration. These operations account for a large proportion of the financial and energy costs associated with recycling.
Sorting plastic is more complicated than any other recyclable material because it comes in a greater range of forms. Glass is separated into three streams (clear, green and amber) metals are usually either steel or aluminum and can be separated using magnets or eddy current separators, paper is usually sorted into a single stream. By comparison about seven types of commodity polymer account for about 80% of plastics waste, with the remaining 20% consisting of a myriad of polymer types. These different polymers are broadly incompatible with each other when recycled, but even items made from the same polymer type may be incompatible depending on what additives they contain. These are compounds blended into plastics to enhance performance and include stabilisers, fillers and, most importantly, dyes. Clear plastics hold the highest value as they may yet be dyed, while black or strongly coloured plastic is much less valuable.
Various approaches and technologies have been developed to sort plastic, which can be combined in different ways. As different polymer types can be incompatible with one another, accurate sorting is essential, although in practice no approach is 100% efficient. Bioplastics and biodegradable plastics currently account for only a small share of household waste but their increasing popularity may yet further complicate waste plastic sorting.
Sorting through waste by hand is the oldest and simplest method of separating plastic. In developing countries this may be done by waste pickers, while in a recycling center workers pick items off a conveyor-belt. It requires low levels of technology and investment, but can have high relative operating costs due to the need for a large workforce. Although many plastic items have identification codes workers rarely have time to look for them, so there are problems of inefficiency and inconsistency in the sorting process. Regardless, even advanced facilities retain manual pickers to troubleshoot and correct sorting errors by equipment. Globally, the process focuses on those materials which are most valuable, such as clear PET bottles, with a significant amount of the waste continuing on to landfill. Working conditions can be unsanitary.
Plastics can be separated by exploiting differences in their densities. In this approach the plastic is first ground into flakes of a similar size, washed and subjected to gravity separation. This can be achieved using either an air classifier or hydrocyclone, or via wet float-sink method. These approaches only allow partial sorting, as some polymers have similar density ranges. Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) will remain together as will Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS), and PVC. In addition, if the plastic contains a high percentage of fillers, this may affect its density. The lighter PP and PE fraction is known as mixed polyolefin (MPO) and can be sold as a low-value product, the heavier mixed plastics fraction is usually unrecyclable.
In electrostatic separators, the triboelectric effect is used to charge plastic particles electrically; with different polymers being charged to different extents. They are then blown through an applied electric field, which deflects them depending on their charge, directing them into appropriate collectors. As with density separation, the particles need to be dry, have a close size distribution and be uniform in shape. Electrostatic separation can be complementary to density separation, allowing full separation of polymers, however, these will still be of mixed colours.
Sensor based separation
This approach can be highly automated and involves various types of sensors linked to a computer, which analyses items and directs them into appropriate chutes or belts. Near-infrared spectroscopy can be used to distinguish between polymer types, although it can struggle with black or strongly coloured plastics, as well as composite materials like plastic-coated paper and multilayered packaging, which can give misleading readings. Optical sorting such as colour sorters or hyperspectral imaging can then further organise the plastics by colour. Sensor based separation is more expensive to install but has the best recovery rates and produces more high-quality products.
Plastic waste can be broadly divided into two categories; industrial scrap and post-consumer waste. Scrap is generated during the production of plastic items and is usually handled completely differently to post-consumer waste. It can include flashings, trimmings, sprues and rejects. As it is collected at the point of manufacture it will be clean, and of a known type and grade of material, and is usually of high quality and value. As scrap is mostly traded company-to-company rather than via municipal facilities, it is often not included in official statistics.
The majority of polymers used today are thermosoftening materials, which can be re-melted and reformed into new items. This is usually the simplest and most economical form of recycling and has a lower carbon footprint than most other processes. However, several factors can lead to the quality of the polymer being reduced when it is recycled this way.
Plastics are reprocessed at anywhere between 150-320°C (300–600°F), depending on the polymer type, and this is sufficient to cause unwanted chemical reactions which result in polymer degradation. Additives present within the plastic can accelerate this degradation. For instance, oxo-biodegradable additives, intended to improve the biodegradability of plastic, also increase the degree of thermal degradation. Similarly, flame retardants can have unwanted effects. The quality of the product also depends strongly on how well the plastic was sorted. Many polymers are immiscible with one another when molten and will phase separate (like oil and water) during reprocessing. Products made from such blends contain many boundaries between the different polymer types and cohesion across such boundaries is weak, leading to poor mechanical properties.
Many of these problems have technological solutions, though they bare a financial cost. Advanced polymer stabilisers and can be used to protect plastics from the rigours of thermal reprocessing. Flame retardants can be removed by chemical treatment, while damaging metallic additives can be rendered inert with deactivators. Finally, the properties of mixed plastics can be improved by using compatibilisers. These are compounds which improve miscibility between polymer types to give a more homogeneous product, with better internal cohesion and improved mechanical properties. They act at the boundary between different polymers and are small-molecules possessing two different chemical regions, each of which is compatible with a certain polymer. This allows them to act like molecular-nails or screws, anchoring the polymers to one another. As a result, compatibilisers are normally limited to systems dominated by two particular types of plastic and are not a cost-effective option for unsorted mixtures of various polymer types. There is no one-size-fits-all compatibiliser for all plastic combinations.
In closed-loop (or primary) recycling used plastic is endlessly recycled back into new items of the same quality and sort. For instance, turning drinks bottles back into drinks bottles. It can be considered an example of a circular economy. The continual mechanical recycling of plastic without reduction in quality is very challenging due to cumulative polymer degradation, and in 2013 only 2% of plastic packaging was recycled in a closed loop. Although closed-loop recycling has been investigated for many polymers, to-date the only industrial successes have been with PET bottle recycling. The reason for this is that polymer degradation in PET is often repairable. PET's polymer chains tend to cleave at their ester groups and the alcohol and carboxyl groups left by this can be joined back together by the use of chemical agents called chain extenders. PMDA is one such compound.
In open-loop recycling (also known as secondary recycling, or downcycling) the quality of the plastic is reduced each time it is recycled, so that the material is not recycled indefinitely and eventually becomes waste. It is the most common type of plastic recycling. The recycling of PET bottles into fleece or other fibres is a common example, and accounts for the majority of PET recycling. Although this approach only delays material from heading to landfill or incineration, life-cycle assessment shows it to be of ecological benefit, as it displaces the production of fresh plastic.
The reduction in polymer quality can be offset by mixing recycled plastic with virgin material when making a new product. Compatibilised plastics can be used as a replacement for virgin material, as it is possible to produce them with the right melt flow index needed for good processing. Low quality mixed plastics can also be recycled in an open-loop, although there is limited demand for such products, as in addition to poor mechanical properties, incompletely sorted waste often contains a wide range of dyes and colourants. When these are mixed during reprocessing the result is usually a dark-brown product which is unappealing for many applications. These blends find use as outdoor furniture or plastic lumber. As the material is weak, but of low cost it is produced in thick planks to be sturdy.
Although thermoset polymers do not melt, technologies have been developed for their mechanical recycling. This usually involves breaking the material down to a crumb, which can then be used to make new composite materials. For instance, polyurethanes can be recycled by reconstituting crumb foam, and tire recycling similarly produces crumb rubber, which can be used as aggregate. Various devulcanisation technologies have also been developed.
In feedstock recycling (also called chemical recycling or tertiary recycling) polymers are reduced to their chemical building-blocks (monomers), which can then be polymerised back into fresh plastics. In theory, this allows for near infinite recycling; as impurities, additives, dyes and chemical defects are completely removed with each cycle. In practice, chemical recycling is less common than mechanical recycling, in part because technologies do not yet exist to depolymerise certain polymers reliably on an industrial scale but also because the equipment costs are much higher. PET, PU and PS are depolymerised commercially to varying extents, but the feedstock recycling of polyolefins, which make-up nearly half of all plastics, is much more limited.
Condensation polymers bearing cleavable groups such as esters and amides can be completely depolymerised by hydrolysis or solvolysis. This can be a purely chemical process but may also be promoted by enzymes, like PETase, which is able to breakdown PET. Such technologies have lower energy costs that thermal depolymerisation but are more limited in terms of the polymers they can be applied to. Thus far polyethylene terephthalate has been the most heavily studied polymer, with commercial scale feedstock recycling being performed by several companies.
Certain polymers like PTFE, polystyrene, nylon 6, and polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) undergo thermal depolymerisation when heated to sufficiently high temperatures. The reactions are sensitive to impurities and require clean and well sorted waste to produce a good product. Even then, not all depolymerisation reactions are completely efficient and some competitive pyrolysis is often observed; the monomers, therefore, require purified by distillation before reuse. The feedstock recycling polystyrene has been commercialised, but global capacity remains fairly limited.
Energy recovery (also called energy recycling or quaternary recycling) involves burning waste plastic in place of fossil fuels for energy production. Its inclusion as a type of recycling can be controversial, but it is nonetheless included in the recycling rates reported by many countries. It is often the default waste management method of last resort, a position previously held by landfill. In urban areas a lack of suitable sites for new landfills can drive this, but it is also a result of regulation, such as the EU's Landfill Directive. As means of waste management, it is highly effective, reducing the volume of waste by about 90%, with the residues sent to landfill or used to make cinder block. Although its CO2 emissions are obviously high, comparing its overall ecological desirability to other recycling technologies is difficult. While recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to incineration, it is an expensive way of achieving these reductions when compared to investing in renewable energy.
Plastic waste may be simply burnt as refuse-derived fuel (RDF) in a waste-to-energy process, or it may be chemically converted to a synthetic fuel first. In either approach PVC must be excluded or compensated for by installing dichlorination technologies, as it generates large amounts of hydrogen chloride (HCl) when burnt. This can corrode equipment and cause undesirable chlorination of the fuel products. The burning of plastics has long been associated with the release of harmful dioxins and dioxin-like compounds, however these hazards can be abated by the use of advanced combustors and emission control systems. Incineration with energy recovery remains the most common method, with more advanced technologies such as pyrolysis being hindered by technical and cost hurdles.
Waste to fuel
Waste plastic can be depolymerised to give a synthetic fuel. This has a higher heating value than the starting plastic and can be burnt more efficiently, although it remains less efficient that fossil fuels. Various conversion technologies have been investigated, of which pyrolysis is the most common. Conversion can take place as part of incineration in IGC cycle, but the fuel may also be sold. Pyrolysis of mixed plastics can give a fairly broad mix of chemical products (between about 1 and 15 carbon atoms) including gases and aromatic liquids. Catalysts can give a better defined product with a higher value. The liquid products can be used as synthetic diesel fuel, with some commercial production taking place in several countries.Life-cycle analysis shows that plastic-to-fuel can displace the production of fossil fuels and result in lower net greenhouse gas emissions (~15% reduction).
Plastic-to-fuel technologies have historically struggled to be economically viable because of the costs of collecting and sorting the plastic and the relatively low value of the fuel produced. Large plants are seen as being more economical than smaller ones but require more investment to build.
Millions of tonnes of plastic waste are generated annually, and this has led to numerous solutions being developed, many of which operate at a considerable scale. A process has been developed in which many kinds of plastic can be used as a carbon source (in place of coke) in the recycling of scrap steel, with roughly 200,000 tons of waste plastics being processed this way each year in Japan. Ground plastic may be used as a construction aggregate or filler material in certain applications. While it is generally unstable in structural concrete its inclusion in asphalt concrete, (tarmac), subbase and recycled insulation can be beneficial.
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