You’ve diligently placed your recyclable plastic in your recycling bin, but how is plastic recycled after you’ve done your bit? To answer your questions about how do we recycle plastic, we’ll show you the step-by-step journey of a plastic bag from your home to its new life as a recycled product.
Step 1: Recycling is collected
Collection is the first step in how is plastic recycled. This most likely happens for you when the recycling trucks pick up the contents of your recycling bins and boxes from outside your home. They take it all to the local recycling facility. The level of collection schemes varies from county to county in the UK.
Your plastic film – such as plastic bag packaging – and other plastic waste is tipped into the truck and taken away.
Step 2: Recycling is sorted
Many recycling companies in the UK have a Single Stream Recycling System, collecting all materials in one batch. So, this second stage in how do we recycle plastic sees different materials (plastic, paper, glass, metal etc.) separated from each other, either by a machine, or manually. Different plastics are sorted by type of material/colour/manufacturing method and certain features can facilitate the process – the sorting is facilitated by packaging that have less print and where the packaging material is easy to identify.
Your plastic bag is sorted into a pile with similar plastic materials.
Step 3: Plastics are washed
But how can plastic be recycled when it’s covered in other things? That’s where washing comes in. It helps to remove anything that isn’t plastic – such as food or drink residue, adhesives and labels. These impurities need to be removed, as they can adversely affect the structural integrity of the product it’s turned into.
Your plastic bag is washed to remove any remaining residue, adhesives, or labels.
Step 4: Plastics are resized
So, how can we recycle plastic when it’s in large pieces? Plastic is easier to reshape once it’s been resized, and this happens by granulating or shredding it, to create smaller pieces. Magnets and detectors can help identify any metal that has accidentally ended up here.
Your plastic bag will be ground into little flakes or chips.
Step 5: Plastics are identified and separated
How can plastic be recycled when there are different types? Those small particles are further sorted, after being tested to identify various qualities:
- Density. By seeing if they float or sink in a tank of water.
- Air classification (thickness). By seeing which fly high and which stay low in a wind tunnel.
- Melting point and colour. Determined by analysing samples.
Your bag’s tiny flakes are tested to identify their various qualities.
But how much plastic is recycled? Certain types aren’t as easy to recycle, and each facility will only have equipment to process specific types. That doesn’t necessarily mean those other types end up in UK landfill. They might be sent to another recycling depot. So, when it comes to how much plastic is actually recycled, it depends on local facilities and processes.
Step 6: Plastics are compounded
We’re now onto answering the question: how can we recycle plastic into new things? After the plastic is dried, it’s then compounded – this mean the particles are melted and made into pellets that are used in new products.
A plastic bag made of polypropylene (PP) could be made into:
- Garden rakes
- Plastic trays
As for how much plastic is recycled in general, that depends on three factors:
- Companies making recyclable products.
- Recycling depots having the machines to do it.
- Consumers putting their plastic in the correct recycling bins/boxes/collection points.
How is Plenty’s packaging 100% recyclable?
At Plenty we’re passionate about helping to increase the amount of packaging that is recycled. With the right facilities and collection schemes, our packaging is already technically recyclable as the majority of plastics in our packaging are made of polyethylene or polypropylene. With sustainable and circular innovations in our packaging, we’re working towards 100% recyclability and use of 85% renewable or recycled materials by 2025.
With companies playing their part, consumers can also make a big difference too. As far as how much plastic gets recycled, that’s partly down to those of us who buy plastic products. By checking the local guidelines about which plastics can be recycled in depots, we can all place the appropriate products in our recycle bins and boxes and live more sustainably.