Have you ever wondered how plastics are recycled, or worry that your plastic recycling never even makes it to the processing plant – instead diverted into the general refuse stream – or worse, shipped across the world to rot and pollute foreign shores?
We delivered the plant pots we recently collected at our Plant Pot Amnesty to the door of the recycling plant in Eastleigh and were given a guided tour around the facility. We followed the route the plastic takes through the plant.
The waste arrives in skips, where it is sorted and stored in cages according to its ‘plastic family’. A plastic family is determined by the type of plastic material and the way the original product was made. Cages of similar items surround the processing plant, each containing familiar objects; from buckets to dustbins, plant pots to traffic bollards.
We were given a quick lesson in differentiating between polypropylene and polystyrene plant pots based on the sound they make when you squeeze them and whether they return to their original shape. We also discovered that other products in the same ‘family’ as plastic plant pots include takeaway food trays, plastic lids and washing up bowls. Some plastic types can be harder to distinguish, and the company occasionally has to send samples away to a laboratory to determine the plastic constituents.
‘Plastic Families’ waiting to be processed:
The plant recycles ‘plastic families’ together in batches to produce a uniform material which can be formed into a new product. The first stage of processing reduces the size of larger items so they can physically fit into the inlet of the industrial equipment. Items like dustbins are sawn in half with powerful handheld saws.
The plastic material undergoes processing which aims to remove contaminants and dirt and progressively reduces the size of the plastic particles. The processing hall contains industrial machines guarded by metal detectors which halt the process when contaminants are detected. Any metal has to be manually removed before the plastic can enter the line.
The machines shred and grind the plastic into smaller and smaller particles. The material is screened using finer and finer screen sizes which helps remove dirt particles and makes it clean enough for the next part of the process.
Particle size is reduced by successive stages of shredding and grinding
Do you recognise this handful of material?
This plastic was formerly household refuse and recycling bins
In the second hall ground plastic particles are heated to their melting point and the liquid plastic is passed through metal filters in one final stage to remove any remaining contaminants. A dye is added to the plastic whilst it is liquid. The liquid plastic is then cooled with water and formed into pellets, which are sold to manufacturers as a raw material for producing new products, from clothing to furniture.
This is the final product, sold to manufacturers as a raw material to make new plastic products
The plant in Eastleigh was processing approximately 300 tonnes of plastic a month prior to the pandemic but this has halved due to a reduction in the availability of material for recycling during successive lockdowns.
Our thanks to Associated Polymer Resources for allowing us access, for recycling our plant pots and for the valuable work they do for us all.