Plastic Recycling Technology Today: The Industrial War Against Plastic Pollution
Recycling plastic is something that we are always told to do by environmental awareness social groups. Our image of how we should recycle plastic has always been at the individual scale, where we try to collect all the plastics that we can reuse as it is. While this advocacy for recycling plastics is a very good way to get people to reuse their plastics, I generally don’t believe that this can be the ultimate solution.
If there were to be a global solution to plastic pollution, I believe that it would have to be made at the industrial scale. The industrial recycling of plastics, or large scale reprocessing of plastics should provide the spearhead, and is ought to be placed at the very frontlines of our war against plastic pollution.
Why Recycling Plastic Industrially is a Challenge
The main problem that always makes plastic recycling difficult to do is the proper separation of each type of plastic. In a heap of junk, sorting out different types of plastic can be very tedious and outright impractical.
First, you have to determine the type of polymer; you can’t just mix different types of plastics together. Then, you must also separate each plastic by color. Finally, you have to break down the complex synthetic molecules that make up the plastic item. Metals on the other hand, are very easy to separate and recycle because they are in essence simply elements, and have specific densities and electrical properties that you can exploit to make separation even easier.
Despite such challenges, development and research has now given birth to different plastic recycling technologies that we can use today:
Plastics to Petroleum
The process of breaking down any complex organic material back in its simpler original form is called thermal depolymerization. We have discussed this briefly awhile back as a process that can convert dead animals to oil. However, as plastics are also made up of complex organic material, they could also be treated with the same process. The recycled end product for plastics would be petroleum, which can be used as dirty fuel or can be reprocessed again to produce reusable plastic.
Plastics to Oil
Turning plastic to oil generally requires controlled heat, much like how thermal depolymerization does it job when plastics turn to petroleum. One of the more recently known attempts to create a machine that recycles plastic this way was the development of a small, portable oil-producing device by the Japanese Blest Corporation. The types of plastic that their invention can “digest” are polyethylene, polystyrene, and polypropylene. Elsewhere around the globe, the startup company Agilyx is also in the process of building four processing plants that are capable of producing oil from many different types of plastics.
Plastics to Plastics
Plastic to plastic recycling is the manual separation and reprocessing of plastic that does not require it to be transformed into another form first. Mike Biddle, cofounder of the plastic recycling company MBA Polymers, has devised a patented 30-step process that can efficiently separate all kinds of plastics and recycle them 100%, ready to be produced and manufactured again. Unlike the two previous methods, this process of directly turning garbage plastic to reusable plastic has the potential to be 100% harmless to the environment, due to the fact that it does not have to be exploited as a replacement for a fossil fuel production facility.
Captain Charles Moore, an oceanographer has caught the world’s attention by discovering in 1997 what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a huge “vortex” of garbage mostly composed of plastics spanning the entire North Pacific Gyre. The existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a clear reminder that we can no longer control the plastic pollution problem individually. We need technologies at the industrial scale to aid us in fighting the impending environmental crisis at its source.
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