The Performance of Recycled Plastics vs Virgin Plastics
Author: Cailyn Wolberg
Incorporating recycled plastics into the manufacturing process is an exciting, novel, but worrying proposition for many manufacturers and brands. On one hand, there is increasing pressure and financial incentives from consumers, governments, and regulatory bodies to increase the usage of recycled polymers. But at the same time, companies are hesitant to introduce additional variables to their manufacturing process that might result in inferior quality.
There is a legitimate cause for concern on the part of manufacturers. Mechanically recycled polymers can have reduced chemical, thermal, and impact resistance when compared to their virgin counterparts. This naturally causes brands and manufacturers to hesitate when introducing any new product with sub-par quality in comparison to previous goods sold.
Keeping in perspective that delivering high quality goods to the end customer is absolute, it’s imperative to qualify this concern with the realities of how materials are actually applied and used in their specific applications. While a product made from virgin plastic could withstand more extreme temperatures and handle a greater impact, the vast majority of products don’t need to test at their current, “virgin-quality” specifications.
The term we often use is “over-engineered” and frankly, we often see over-engineering in a variety of applications. Does your commodity product need to hold up at negative 20 degrees or survive a fall from a skyscraper? Likely not, but these parameters are the types of extreme conditions and events in which “virgin plastic” products are tested. So this leads us to a question: is good enough, enough? While this phrase is often anathema to brands and manufacturers that pride themselves on quality and durability, how do we find the balance of quality, reliability, and sustainability?
Not your grandfather’s PCR.
The most common cause of polymer degradation in recycled plastic are wide-spectrum contaminants found in the recycling stream. The plastic itself gets weakened when these foreign particles make it through the cleaning and sorting process and into the final resin feedstock.
However, thanks to stronger demand and increasingly more sophisticated technology, this contamination can be addressed in multiple ways:
- Advancements in sorting and recycling continue to be made, resulting in increasingly higher-quality, purer recycled plastic.
- Purer, single-grade recycling feedstock is also available, eliminating worries of subpar materials polluting the feedstock.
- Recyclers sourcing plastic from higher-quality providers at consistent volumes results in a better, more efficient supply chain and creates more predictable and consistent output quality and volume.
Give it a fair chance
In an apples-to-apples comparison, recycled polymers will have some variation from their virgin counterparts. For example, recycled plastics like polyethylene often exhibit increased plasticity and processability due to changes in molecular weight and the ratio of crystallinity. But that divergence might make the recycled option more attractive for some applications, such as for shrink wraps and packaging.
This is why each potential deviation from virgin plastic’s properties must be given fair consideration. Some changes might detract from the product’s performance—perhaps so much so that it’s truly not an option—but oftentimes these differences are negligible and in some cases can even yield a net positive result.
Options for matching virgin plastic performance
With full recognition of the differences and similarities between recycled and virgin plastic, there are a host of tactics available to digest the information and lessen those concerns.
When there’s no room for any dip in performance, primary recycling is an excellent solution for maintaining quality while still reducing the environmental impact of these products and their reliance on virgin feedstock. In these cases, only plastic with the exact same properties is recycled, ensuring there’s no variance in quality. This includes closed-loop recycling solutions where the material is recycled for the same exact application, such as when PET bottles are recycled to produce new bottles.
There’s still a place for secondary recycling, but this can be reserved for products that don’t have as stringent performance requirements when compared to the original application. But even secondary recycling can still exhibit the desired qualities by using additives. When applied correctly, compatibilizers can create recycled plastic with identical properties to their virgin equivalent, often at a lower price point.
Another strategy is creating a blend of recycled and virgin plastic. Adding as little as 30% virgin resin is often enough to create a blended plastic with properties nearing that of 100% virgin material. While this doesn’t completely eliminate the need to create new virgin plastic from fossil fuels, it can greatly reduce the overall volume produced.
This “partial” solution is sometimes frowned upon by those advocating for a complete rejection of virgin plastic. But that absolutist stance ignores the possibility of making massive inroads thanks to swapping out even a portion of virgin plastic for recycled material.
Overcoming hesitancy and embracing the possibilities
The time has come for all brands and manufacturers to stop delaying consideration and incorporation of recycled plastic in their products and processes. The dangers and damage of virgin plastic are well known to everyone at this point, and there are enough recycled plastic options and sources available that nearly every application can find a viable solution.
The bottom line is that recycled plastic is “as good” or “good enough” in nearly every use case, and fears of inferior quality aren’t based in current reality. Even those products demanding the highest quality standards have options available to them, such as blending, single-source recycling, and quality-enhancing additives.
Partnering with trusted suppliers and advisers can help brands and manufacturers navigate the process of incorporating recycled plastic, from identifying the right suppliers to narrowing down the available feedstocks to those that best meet the product’s requirements. Doing so can help companies reduce their footprint, cut costs, and create a better story for the marketplace, which is desperately seeking solutions that take sustainability into consideration.
To learn more about how Oceanworks can help your company adopt a more sustainable strategy, send us a note here or discuss the topic with your assigned account manager.