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22 February 2022

Life cycle of plastics: how does it work?

From raw material production to precessing, from use to recycling: everything you need to know about the lifecycle of plastic

Plastic is one of the most widely use, durable and long-lasting materials. Thanks to its special characteristics and properties, such as lightness, versatility and strength, as well as its high level of hygiene and food compatibility, it can be used in a wide range of industries: from packaging to construction, from transport to electronics, from cosmetics to food.

The life cycle of plastics is quite long. This material is almost indestructible: it is not biodegradable, it does not melt and it can hardly be eroded by the weather. It is not biodegradable, does not dissolve and is difficult to erode by the elements. However, it can be recycled in special plants and used to create new, durable and reusable objects in various forms, or as an alternative energy source.

But what are the different stages in the life cycle of plastics, from raw material to disposal? And how can it be disposed of or recycled to reduce its impact on the environment?.

From raw material to finished product: types of plastics

Each plastic has specific characteristics that make it more or less suitable for particular uses and applications. Plastics are generally understood to be various types of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials made from fossil fuels (oil, crude oil, gas). These are macromolecular materials made in the laboratory, composed of polymers of various lenghts, to which varying amounts of other elements (such as carbon, cellulose or natural gas) are added to give them specific characteristics.

Plastics can be divided into two macro-groups. Depending on the different reactions caused by contact with heat, we can distinguish:

  • thermoplastics, i.e. plastics that melt when heated and can be easily moluded and hardened when cooled. Their properties are reversible, so they can be subjected to these processes repeatedly (potentially indefinitely). This gfamily includes all the most common and widely used types of plastic, such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polycarbonate (PC) and polyamide (PA);
  • thermosetting plastics that undergo a chemical change when subjected to high temperatures and once heated, formed and hardened, can no longer be melted and reshaped. It is therefore not possible to recycle them or convert them into their original components. Polymers such as  polyurethane (PUR), unsaturated polyester resins (UP), epoxy and phenolic resins belong to this group.

Use and disposal of plastics: how does it affect the environment?

The life cycle of plastics can vary depending on their composition and end products. In general, however, it is possible to outline a number of stages and compulsory steps that all plastics have in common. Once they have been used and reached the end of their life, they can be disposed of or reclyed. As they are not biodegradable, disposal in landfills (or worse, directly into the environment, rivers and oceans) can have disastrous effects, causing a build-up of waste and pollutans that are difficult to dispose of  and dangerous to terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The possibility to recycle plastic products and packaging also depends on the level of awareness and commitment of the end consumer: sorting the waste according to its material is the first step to start a proper recycling process.

Plastics can be recycled in a variety of ways to create new products, but also to produce energy, heat or electricity:

  • through mechanical recycling the plastic is reduced to flakes and granules and then fed back into moulding plants to be processed into new products;
  • waste-to-energy makes it possible to obtain alternative fuels from plastics, which can be used for the production of thermoelectric energy or in various industrial processes.

Plastisac's contribution: plastic recycling for a greener future

Plastisac has always been attentive to issues related to recycling and environmental sustainability. In order to reduce the impact on the environment and ensure greater sustainability of production processes, Plastisac is constantly engaged in research and development of innovative technologies for the production of polyethylene products with low environmental impact, ensuring absolute quality and traceability.

Anprint of plastic bags for waste collection (ref. d that's not all. It was one of the first companies in the sector to pay attention to reducing carbon footprint ISO/TS 14067:2013) and has obtained UNI EN ISO 14067:2018 - CFP SYSTEMATIC APPROACH certification, system for calculating the product Carbon Footprint, i.e. the analysis of the life cycle carbon footprint of each product manufactured.

The company also promotes the development of virtuos supply chains in waste management for the reuse of plastics in the production of new packaging and is developing with some customers a project for the production of green packaging, 100% eco-sustainable, made from post-consumer recycled raw material. This type of packaging (although slightly more opaque and not perfectly trasparent) mantains the same technical properties as the virgin raw material, helping to significantly reduce the impact on the environment.

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