A Molecule of Plastic

  • Dec. 2, 2021

As talk of environmental issues intensifies around the world, accurate insight into how consumers interact with various environmental solutions is important. Over time, building better human understanding shapes behaviors, which must change to save the planet from inevitable human induced destruction. Of the many environmental solutions in play right now, recycling seems to be the “low hanging fruit” of things people can do now to help. At Beach Token, we recognize how education about recycling plays an important role in slowly changing behaviors and governmental priorities, one process at a time.

To most consumers who claim to recycle, recycling ends at the street where they park their recycle bins for weekly municipal pickup. While necessary, that simple act is just the beginning of a complex process that ends with the creation of useful goods that improve our world. Plastics come in a wide variety and here we will examine four main types most commonly used in our daily lives:
1) Polyethylene Terephthalate, commonly referred to as PET or PETE, is used to make clothing fibers and soft drink bottles.
2) Polyvinyl Chloride — PVC for short, is used to make wires, pipes, bottles, and films.
3) High Density Polyethylene called HDPE in the industry, is used to make food beverage containers, snowboards, and wood plastic composites.
4) Low Density Polyethylene (LMDPE) is used to make plastic bags.
The following is a snapshot of what happens to a molecule of plastic as it moves through the complex process of recycling. The process of recycling differs by material, but in general it entails these simple steps:
1) Collection, starting with humans returning plastics to those tasked with introducing plastics into the recycling system.
2) Sorting, which takes place at recycling centers or plants. It entails grouping plastics according to their molecular composition, as previously outlined in the four highlighted varieties.
3) Cleaning, which is nothing short of washing plastics of dirt, debris, and often the substance they carried to consumers such as milk or soft drink.
4) Sorting again, this time by color to enable use in more specific ways tied to color.
5) Chopping, into small pieces for use in cold applications requiring fine plastic filler granules.
6) Heating, a return to molten liquid for injection into molds and extruders that when cooled produce newly formed plastic products.
And that’s it. Not too complicated but typically expensive. The conversation that needs to occur is what expense we want to assume as stewards of our planet. While the typical recycling plant can cost between $500,000 (USD) and $9,000,000 depending on location and type, the long-term costs of continuing to pollute our oceans and landfills with plastics is far higher to ecosystems, marine life, and ultimately humans. As citizens of the planet, it remains our responsibility to understand recycling and participate in it daily through good consumer behaviors.
Recycled PET flake is in big demand
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