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Three Plastic Recycling Methods & How They Work

Plastic bottles in trash bin with recycle sign
Whether you have been an environmental enthusiast for years or have just begun to recycle, you likely know that when you recycle plastic items, they are reused instead of being placed in landfills. However, you may not realize that plastics can be recycled in several ways. In fact, plastic can be reused in more ways than ever before. 
Read on to learn about three plastic recycling methods in current use and one emerging method that may be in use soon. 

Mechanical Recycling

When you think of traditional recycling, the process of mechanical recycling may be what comes to mind. During mechanical recycling of plastics, plastic is ground or broken up into small pieces and then melted down. The melted plastic is then remolded to create new plastic products. 
There are many types of plastic, and different types of plastic typically cannot be mixed together during the mechanical recycling process. When melted, these various plastic types will separate into several layers of material that cannot be molded into new plastic items. 
The diversity of plastic is why you will find recycling codes with numbers on most recyclable plastics. These codes designate the type of plastic the item is made from. Professionals at the recycling plant use these codes to ensure they do not combine different types of plastics during the mechanical recycling process.
However, mechanical recycling has advanced greatly over the years, and some recycling plants now use visible light sorting or near infrared (NIR) technology to sort plastics instead of relying on the codes. This method helps make the mechanical recycling process quicker and easier. 
While mechanical recycling is beneficial to the environment because it keeps plastic out of landfills, it does have its limitations. Not all plastics can be recycled, and plastics cannot be recycled indefinitely. Every time a plastic product is recycled, it becomes weaker, and its uses become more limited.  

Feedstock Recycling

Some plastics can be recycled using the feedstock recycling method, also called chemical recycling. During feedstock recycling, a plastic product is broken down into the molecules it is made from. For example, when PVC is recycled using this method, it is broken down into chlorine and carbon molecules. These molecules can then be used in a variety of ways.
While they can be used to create new plastic items, the molecules can also be used in many other chemical applications. 

Energy Recovery

A relatively new recycling method is a process called energy recovery. Through energy recovery, recycled plastics can be used to create a variety of fuels. Plastic contains a large amount of captured energy and actually contains more energy than coal or wood. 
Plastics-to-fuel recycling technology turns plastics into oil that can be used to create many types of fuel, such as kerosene and diesel fuel. In addition, plastic can be turned into a gas that can be used to create electricity through a process called gasification.

Enzyme Recycling

A method of plastic recycling that has just begun to be studied is enzyme recycling. While not yet in use, scientists think that this type of plastic recycling could be a great value to our planet once the process is perfected. 
The enzyme recycling idea was sparked when environmental scientists realized that there are bacteria in the ocean called Ideonella saikaiensis that eat plastic bottles that pollute the oceans. They studied how the bacteria break down the plastic bottles and discovered that they break them down using two natural enzymes. 
Scientists are now studying ways to harness and use these enzymes to perform enzyme plastic recycling. Enzyme recycling is expected to be able to break some types of plastic down into their original chemical components. 
Now you know what happens to those plastic items that you place in your recycling bin after they are collected. Contact Ranchtown Recycling Center for all of your plastic recycling needs.