Plastic has become ubiquitous in our world. It has been found just about everywhere on earth, even inside mosquitoes. Since it was first developed, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, which is enough to cover the country of Argentina ankle deep.
Plastics fall into two broad categories: thermoplastics, which can be melted down repeatedly, and thermosets, which cannot be remelted once they are set. There are seven main groups of plastic based on chemical makeup but dozens of different types of plastic. Plastics can be classified by chemical structure, the chemical process used to synthesize them, physical properties and chemical properties.
Why Plastic Recycling Is Difficult
Plastic is one of the most significant constituents of e-waste; it represents approximately 30 percent of residential e-waste by weight, according to Gary Diamond, CEO of Quantum. There are an incredible number of varieties of plastic used in products. One consumer electronics unit may contain dozens of different polymers. Unlike metals, many of which can be heated and melted down together during recycling, e-waste plastics melt at different temperatures and would contaminate one another if combined.
Plastic is one of the most difficult e-waste component to recycle because most types of plastic look the same, are generally hard to distinguish from one another with the human eye and hand. There are also many other reasons why it is hard to recycle.
- There are many plastic polymers in electronics. Since plastic polymers have low value, it is not economically viable to use a lot of labour for sorting.
- Polymer sorting requires machinery to be viable but it’s expensive and difficult for machines to sort polymers.
- It takes a lot of resources to transform recycled polymers into a usable product.
- Until last year when they stopped accepting goods for recycling, China was the principal plastics recycler for the world. Therefore, developed countries did not bother investing in their own plastics recycling systems.
- Much of the older plastics were created using brominated flame retardants, which have been recognized as damaging to health. These plastics can’t be recycled into new plastics because of the health hazard.
Sorting Shredded, Mixed and Whole Plastic
Most plastics recycling lines use four complicated, capital intensive processes: float sink, granulation, electrostatic separation and palletization. At Quantum, the shredder line accepts more than half the company’s overall volume of processed recyclables. It mechanically breaks apart products for sorting and plastics emerge from the shredder in a single stream. Unfortunately, these plastics are a mixed lot of every possible polymer.
Whole plastic from single sources such as TV’s or CRT disassembly is the easiest to handle. Because most of it is clearly labeled and still whole when segregated, it is much easier to sort than the plastic that goes through the shredder, though the danger of flame retardant-contaminated product remains.
What Is the Future for Plastics Recycling?
When China announced it was no longer accepting plastic for recycling; the rest of the world heard its wake up call. While other South East Asian countries have begun taking some of the plastic product from overseas, there is growing awareness in the developed world that we need to start handling our own waste.
According to Diamond, “We are beginning to see people in North America investing in machinery to recycle plastic. It’s going to be a very fluid market over the next few years as we figure out the best ways to deal with this situation environmentally and economically.”
We need to put our efforts into limiting plastic waste and developing fully recyclable products to deal with this growing problem. If you have any questions about plastics recycling or want to schedule a pickup, contact Quantum today.