What are the top plastics that get recycled?
Not all plastics are created equal… and the same goes for recycled plastics. It’s important not to view “plastics” as a monolithic entity, as there is a wide range of material with very different properties and uses.
Seventy-five percent of plastics found in the ocean originated on land, found their way into waterways and were deposited into the ocean via rivers. While some of this comes from deliberate littering, much originates via inadequate handling of waste.
At Oceanworks, we don’t play favorites… any plastic that can be recycled and diverted from the waste stream or our natural environment is worth our attention. But the products most commonly recycled—which also pose the biggest threat to our oceans, beaches, and waterways—are the ones we worry about most.
Primary plastics were created to be small in the first place. Often referred to as microbeads, some primary microplastics are used in personal products like cosmetics and face washes and replaced natural products to provide for abrasive purposes.
Primary microplastics are also used for resin pellets that are then melted down for manufacturing plastic products. Another use for microplastics is in the air blasting process, where the tiny beads are propelled with great force to remove paint and rust from metal surfaces.
The following types of plastics fall into the primary microplastics category:
PET (or PETE) stands for Polyethylene Terephthalate. This is a very common plastic used for soda bottles, water bottles, and other types of food packaging. Its transparency makes it highly desirable for these purposes.
It is very easy to recycle and is usually reused for bottles or polyester fibers. It can be recycled repeatedly and is one of the most commonly recycled plastics.
HDPE stands for High-Density Polyethylene. The plastic is used most often for packaging, including milk bottles, detergent, hair care products, and laundry cleaning supplies. It is harder and less resistant to damage than some other plastic. It can also withstand hot temperatures and doesn’t absorb liquids and is resistant to many chemicals.
When it’s recycled, it typically ends up being reused for bottles or plastic bags. It is very easy to recycle, which is typically done via a process of bring shredded and melted down into pellets.
Polypropylene is found in clothing and ropes, as well as tubs and bottles. Its resistance to many chemical solvents and rigid qualities makes it attractive to packaging detergents, cleaning supplies and other consumer products.
It can be recycled into fibers and pellets. It is one of the least recycled plastics, despite the fact most of its uses are for very short periods of time and the high demand for the material. It will biodegrade after 20-30 years, but the additives release in that process can create other environmental issues.
Secondary microplastics are tiny fragmented pieces of plastic products. When plastic products get discarded, sunlight, water, and other natural forces gradually break them down into smaller pieces.
These plastics plague waterways, beaches, and oceans. Because they never biodegrade, they instead just get smaller and smaller, working their way into aquatic ecosystems, including into the fish humans eat.
These plastics include:
Low-Density Polyethylene is a flimsier plastic used for wrapping and packaging, including bubble wrap. Rigid LDPE is used for things like bottles, caps, containers, and lids.
LDPE’s resistance to moisture and chemicals and is highly attractive for products that must be shipped due to its low weight. It can be recycled into products used for the same purposes and is often used for shipping envelopers and trash bags, as well as more durable goods including furniture and building materials.
Linear Low-Density Polyethylene is used as a film wrap for food, prized by companies in that industry for its ability to prevent food from spoiling due to its resistance to tearing and puncturing. 55% of it is used for single-use purposes.
However, when recycled it has desirable properties for other purposes, including outdoor and mechanical applications since it’s more flexible and less brittle than other plastics.
Polycarbonate is impact and fracture-resistant, along with being easy to color. It’s used for shatter-resistant and bulletproof glass, as well as consumer electronics. But PC products include bisphenol A (or BPA) and has been largely eliminated from any product that might come in contact with food or drink.
Although it’s difficult to recycle, diverting this material from landfills and waterways is essential due to the many environmental impacts it has once it enters the waste stream. It never biodegrades and releases many toxic elements into the environment over time, which can pose a major risk to sea life and the seafood humans eat.
PC can be recycled, but it is typically through a chemical process versus melting it down for reuse.
Other notable plastics
Two plastics that don’t usually become microplastics but are still highly desirable recyclable materials are ABS and TPU.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene is a strong, rigid and shiny plastic. It’s used in electronics, automobiles, planes, helmets, golf clubs, and suitcases. It’s also what Legos are made from.
ABS can be heated up until it reaches a liquid state (at 221 degrees Fahrenheit) and then injected molded to be recycled for new purposes. ABS can undergo this heating/cooling process over and over again, so it can be endlessly reused.
Thermoplastic polyurethane is sometimes called the bridge between rubbers and plastics. It has just enough “give” and flexibility it can be used for applications that formerly relied on rubber, but has the lower production costs and increased durability of plastics. It is a favorite for 3D printer applications and is commonly found in products like cell phone cases and sporting goods.
TPU can be recycled in two ways: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical processes include chopping or grinding the virgin TPU down so that it can be compression molded into a new product or bonded together using various processes. Chemical recycling processes break TPU down into its chemical constituents, which can then be used to create new raw materials, including more TPU.
Ready to see if there’s a market for your recycled ocean plastics or a nearby supplier of the certified recycled plastics you need for your manufacturing processes? Check out the Oceanworks Marketplace.