Plastic recycling in industrial environments

plastic recycling

The implementation of plastic recycling in industrial environments represents a guarantee that companies are making their best to minimize their environmental impact. With plastic being a non-biodegradable material, it has gained a bad reputation as plastic recycling techniques weren’t adopted. 

However, with growing new sensibilities towards sustainability, the application of plastic recycling schemes is growing in industrial environments and beyond. Learn about current options on how to recycle plastic and the types of recyclable plastic companies should look forward to incorporating.

Plastic recycling: the necessity beyond the trend

There’s no doubt plastic recycling is an urgent action for all involved players in the industrial sector, with current data backing this claim. 

For instance, a recent McKinsey report cited that global plastic waste is forecasted to almost double by 2030, and just 12% of plastic waste is recycled or reused today. Instead, it goes to landfills, incineration, or dumps

However, the same report considered a changing scenario: as plastic recycling techniques evolve and become more accessible and financially-wise, it’s possible to overturn these unfortunate stats: if the right schemes are put to work, 50% of plastics worldwide could be recycled or reused by 2030.

In fact, for industrial companies today, plastic recycling brings in at least three key benefits: 

  • A firm engagement with sustainability to align with consumer preferences today. The environmental cost of plastic recycling is less than the production of virgin plastic. It also generates less waste. 
  • Compliance with current legislation, which we look at more closely further down this article.
  • Adequate plastic recycling techniques mean companies can access quality materials at a relatively economical price compared to the investments made for polymer production.

You might also be interested in: Expanded polypropylene industrial uses and sustainability

How to recycle plastic in an industrial environment

Plastic recycling can be defined as the process of reprocessing plastic that has been used to turn it into usable products, thus reducing solid waste.

While the process of how to recycle plastic varies depending on the plastic recycling techniques that are used, the following provides a template for the required steps:

  • Plastic must be collected and transported to the treatment plants
  • Typically, it will need to follow a sorting process: first, to isolate plastic from other materials; then, to sort through the different types of plastic themselves. Today, plastic recycling mainly focuses on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and polypropylene, which are considered as the three main types of recyclable plastic.
  • From here, different steps depending on the chosen plastic recycling techniques. It might involve washing, crushing and extrusion, among other operations. We take a look at these in the following section.

Another important aspect to consider in how to recycle plastic is that companies must comply with national and international legislation. 

For instance, the EU framework for recycling plastic includes laws concerning food-contact materials (Regulation (EC) No 1935/2004, later amended by Regulation (EU) 2019/1381), as well as specific norms for plastic materials (Commission Regulation (EU) No 10/2011) and recycling processes (Regulation EC 282/2008).

Plastic recycling techniques

Chemical plastic recycling

The process of chemical plastic recycling consists of splitting plastic’s molecular structure in order to convert it into new virgin-like materials such as crude oil, naptha or fuels. Today, it represents a still minoritary process, and is used when mechanical plastic recycling is not suitable.

Some features of this plastic recycling technique include: 

  • Sorting: thorough sorting is not required, as different plastics can be recycled together. 
  • Endless recycling: it makes plastic infinitely recyclable.
  • Sustainability: more energy is needed and more CO2 emissions are generated through chemical plastic recycling compared to other options.
  • Toxicity: some toxic chemicals such as acids and solvents are involved in dissolving plastics through chemical techniques. This means the waste generated and other by-products will be an environmental hazard.
  • Unable for food-grade plastic materials: plastic recycled using chemical methods is not legally deemed for being in touch with food.

Mechanical plastic recycling

This plastic recycling technique allows for the recovery of plastic waste through a series of mechanical operations using specific machines. It’s the most common recycling method today for industrial and post-consumer plastic waste and is employed for polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

The operations vary depending on the type of waste to be treated but typically include washing and drying, grinding, re-granulating, compounding, and pelletizing.

This plastic recycling technique presents the following characteristics: 

    • Sorting: mechanical recycling needs uncontaminated waste streams and different plastics to be sorted out before beginning the process
    • Not infinitely recyclable: using mechanical methods, most plastics can be recycled between 3 and 7 times
    • Sustainability: mechanical recycling consumes less energy than chemical recycling and can be considered a more sustainable alternative. Research conducted by Jeswani et al., (2021) concluded it’s more sustainable in terms of climate change impact compared to chemical recycling.
    • Toxicity: no toxic chemicals are needed
  • Food-grade plastics: because this process doesn’t change the material’s chemical structure, mechanical plastic recycling generates plastics materials that are allowed to be in contact with food following European legislation

Types of recyclable plastic: Monomaterial composition of parts and its importance in plastic recycling

When considering plastic recycling in an industrial environment, it’s important for companies to understand not all plastic packaging is made the same. 

While chemical processes remain a testing experiment, mechanical recycling technologies remain the most efficient and sustainable alternative. In turn, this means plastic recycling today needs a comprehensive sorting process that takes place before the actual recycling.

In view of current plastic recycling techniques, it’s important for industrial actors to understand the importance of choosing monomaterial options, which can greatly facilitate recycling processes. 

This is due to the fact that different plastic waste presents variations in characteristics, including diverse melt flow indexes or the presence of additives. Additionally, sorting processes become more complex and thus complicate the recycling process.

EPS recycling

In our guide about EPS recycling, we covered how this outstanding plastic material is already part of successful recycling schemes such as Knauf Circular®.

Through establishing comprehensive collecting spots, it’s then possible to transport EPS pieces to recycling plants where densifiers are used to crush EPS into tiny pieces and then melt them. When the process is finished, the result is a new EPS material ready to be incorporated into efficient HVAC custom parts or protective packaging solutions, among other uses.

EPP recycling

Expanded polypropylene (EPP) is yet another outstanding plastic material that can be 100% mechanically recycled today. 

Being a homogeneous thermoplastic material, EPP fluidizes when subjected to heat in a reversible process that turns into repeatable recycling ad infinitum. 

Following an analog process as EPS recycling, an EPP recycling machine can efficiently give a new life to EPP waste generated in an industrial environment.

PET Recycling

PET is yet another 100% recyclable plastic, a process that is facilitated because this material presents a low melting temperature. The process follows several steps including collection, separation, transportation, processing, washing, pelletizing, and reforming, allowing companies to access new PET products. 

Knauf Appliances: Sustainability and plastic recycling

At Knauf Appliances, we’ve made a firm commitment to helping industrial companies reduce their environmental impact. 

Through our own sustainability measures and registered recycling schemes such as Knauf Circular®,  we provide the key to efficient plastic recycling in industrial environments.

Protective packaging plastic recycling

We present decades-long expertise in generating custom protective packaging for industrial companies. With the advent of new sustainability sensibilities, we’ve also committed to providing protective packaging and plastic recycling schemes for our clients.

You might also be interested in: The benefits of protective foam 

In fact, Knauf Industries favors packaging solutions based on 100% recyclable materials that are covered by recycling schemes and provides the technical support to pick up, transport and convert plastic protective packaging materials such as EPP and EPS.

Sustainable plastic technical parts

At Knauf, we’re also in charge of providing technical parts for a wide range of industries, including the HVAC sector. Additionally, our plastic foam technical parts can be recycled through our circular schemes and recycling programs, thus providing companies with the opportunity to minimize their plastic waste and comply with regulations.

Learn more about the use of EPP and EPS in the industry and how they’re included in plastic recycling processes in industrial environments by downloading our free Technical Manual about Expanded Foam in the Industry.

 

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