Recycling, Simplified—Even for the Most Challenging Wastes

Recycling doesn't have to be so complex—new options are emerging that allow managers to rethink the end of life of plastic waste, even for plastics that have historically been the most challenging to recycle.

Traditional recycling programs present a challenge for waste generators, as only certain plastic polymers are recyclable—and even then, only in certain sizes and for specific applications. These limitations make plastic waste recycling especially complex and costly—and result in the recycling of only about 9% of plastic waste. Luckily, with advances in recycling technology and processes, even the most historically "un-recyclable" wastes can gain a new life and even create financial and environmental return on investment (ROI). 

Problematic Plastic Waste

Across industries, some 380 million metric tons of plastic are produced annually—underlying the widespread reliance many organizations have on this material. About half of this is produced for single-use, and about 300 million metric tons of this is already considered waste within one year of its creation.

Plastics are environmentally and economically expensive. They wreak havoc on the environment throughout their entire lifecycle—causing environmental destruction during mining and drilling, entering the ecosystem during use and disposal, and filling valuable landfill space. It's easy to imagine the toll that these plastics would take on the environment if even just a fraction of this annual plastic waste ended up within the wrong waste disposal stream.

Unfortunately, the responsibility for proper disposal of plastic waste tends to fall on those that procure the substance. Operations managers frequently see plastics as a costly yet necessary upfront cost that delivers very little ROI. Which ultimately is true—sending single-use plastic waste to the landfill after the end of their useful life is inefficient and reduces their ROI. Luckily, there are better options available.

Plastics Recycling Challenges

Many industries would cease to function without plastics, especially those for single use. Laboratories, for example, wouldn't be able to maintain the integrity and sterility of their samples without single-use plastic petri dishes, pipette tips, and more. The same applies across industries—plastic enables efficient and necessary packaging, containment of wastes or materials, and improvements to overall operations.

Disposing of these plastics, however, has traditionally been a challenge—for many reasons. Current recycling systems just can’t keep up with the amount of waste that is being generated. On top of that, plastics about three inches long or smaller may cause issues for recycling equipment—pipette tips, pill packaging, petri dishes, and more may slip through cracks in machinery, damaging these tools and preventing proper recycling of the plastic waste.

There are also rules regarding what plastic polymers can be recycled in traditional systems—and in what sizes, colors, and amounts. Flexible plastics are not typically able to be recycled, for example. When non-recyclable materials enter the pipeline, entire batches of waste are rendered “contaminated”—destining them for the landfill, where they will take up valuable space.

On the flip side, there are limitations to what “usable” recycled plastic can be used for. Since the end material of recycling is a mix of polymers, it cannot be used in applications where a specific polymer is necessary for integrity, sterility, preservation, or structure. This furthers reduces the percentage of plastic that can ultimately be recycled.

Efficient Plastic Waste Recycling

Managers frequently avoid recycling as a whole. They don't want to waste their valuable time and effort to sort through each individual piece of waste and create a recycling plan for it. They instead tend to just throw everything into the same waste stream for their waste management company to deal with. As we’ve discussed in this blog, however, this comes with its own financial and environmental costs.

Luckily, new and emerging recycling programs give managers options. These programs support simplified plastic waste recycling by offering comingled recycling of a variety of waste streams, allowing multiple materials to be recycled in different ways within the same waste stream. This offers operations managers numerous benefits over simply sending these plastics to the landfill—extending the ROI of plastics and reducing the burden on managers, as well as a plethora of environmental benefits. These viable and efficient recycling systems can help organizations struggling with dealing with all the limitations of plastic waste recycling—even for the toughest plastics.

Recycling the Toughest Plastic Waste

Below, we will describe a viable multi-step process for plastics recycling that is unlike traditional systems. It involves:

  1. Separation of Wastes: Wastes may be separated with a sink-float tank—with operators changing the concentration of the tank to float specific plastic polymers for different end goals. Separation may also include the Eddy-Current system, which is utilized to collect unwanted metal that enters the process.
  2. Sanitation of Wastes: Cleansing makes wastes safe to handle.
  3. External Disposal: If plastic cannot be used, it can be stored for future use or otherwise properly disposed of.
  4. Shredding and Mixing: This process enables regular consistency of the material mix for every project. 
  5. Extrusion: The mix of waste can then be extruded into a product, such as plastic lumber.

Improved Recycling System Benefits

This system provides many benefits, including:

  1. Elimination of plastic waste sorting: The sink-float tank allows the recycling centers to sort and collect waste—automating the process and ensuring the perfect blend for different projects.
  2. Increased recyclability: The concept of “contamination” is eliminated because all wastes can be easily separated and recycled individually if necessary. This system also allows capture of plastics of different sizes. These benefits increase recyclability and ensure less plastic waste is lost during the recycling process.
  3. Increased ROI for plastic waste generators: Plastic waste generators no longer need to write off plastic waste as simply a loss after use. Now, the plastic is turning into a useful product that benefits another industry—increasing the ROI of these plastics.
  4. Progress towards sustainability goals: Organizations that have sustainability and compliance objectives can view this as an opportunity to make progress towards their goals. Increasing the recyclability of these plastics (number 3, above) ensures less plastic ends up in the landfill or in the environment and mitigates their effect on the community.

Triumvirate Environmental offers one such recycling program. Partnering with us for your recycling needs can help you make progress towards your sustainability goals as well as increase the ROI of your much needed materials—and may even help you gain market share. Ready to learn more and get started with plastics recycling? Contact us today.

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