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22 December 2022

How plastic is recycled: from collection to sorting and recycling centres

Everything you need to know about plastic recycling

Plastic is a durable and versatile material used in many industries, especially for packaging and everyday objects. Like all materials, however, if subjected to prolonged use it can deteriorate and, once its function is over, it must be disposed of properly. Optimal end-of-life management of plastic packaging and materials is fundamental for the protection of environment and the Planet and can lead to a significant limitation of plastic dispersion in the environment, transforming it from waste into a valuable reusable for the production of new products.

In recent years, thanks to the introduction of the most efficient separate collection system, the percentage of plastic waste collection and recycling has increased significantly: according to data released by Corepla in its Sustainability Report 2021, 722,218 tonnes of plastic packaging waste (most of it from urban separate collection) were sent for recycling last year, an increase of 10% compared to the previous year.

Let's take a detailed look at how plastics are recycled, what the different steps in the recycling process are - from collection to disposal and recycling centres - and how they can be improved.

Plastic recycling process: the different steps

The plastic recycling process encompasses all actions and operations aimed at the disposal and reuse of plastic materials and consists of several steps, ranging from the collection process to the reuse of the recycled plastic for the production of new products and objects.

The first step in the plastic recycling process is to identify tge type of plastic you are trying to recycle and the subsequent sorting of plastics by size and type to prepare the plastic waste for the subsequent recycling steps. Each type of plastic material, in fact, is distinguished by particular characteristics and a specific composition: correct sorting and separation of plastics is therefore essential to ensure their effective recycling. The different types of recyclable plastics are immediately recognisable thanks to recycling logo: a triangle with a number from 1 to 7 inside it, which distiguishes each type of plastic (e.g. PET, HDPE or PP).

After an initial selection, the plastic recycling process continues with the subsequent steps of:

  • sorting: once the plastics have been collected through separate waste collection, they are sent to specialised plants, which handle the actual recycling. The second stage of recycling process is then the sorting of plastic waste, which is largely performed by special machinery. The waste is sorted according to its size and composition using ifrared scanners. At this point they are ready for the next step: Shredding;
  • shredding (or grinding): this is a key stage in the transformation of plastic waste into new raw material. The divided and sorted waste is sent to processing plants to be further divided accordin to the type of product (e.g. bags, caps, bottles or containers). This division is very important for proper recycling;
  • washing: in this phase the plastic is washed and cleaned to remove any residual dirt or other substances that could hinder recycling;
  • trituration: once cleaned, the plastic waste is shredded to obtain plastic flakes (called 'flakes'), which are then divided by colour by special machines and then heated, cooled and shredded again. This produces pellets, small granules of plastic material that can be used to produce new raw material.

What about non-recyclable plastics?

Plastic waste may also include certain types of plastics that cannot be sent for recycling. This is the case, for example, with items made of different types of plastic, which cannot be separated and therefore cannot be recycled. This category includes all plastics labelled with the number 7, which are generally sent to incinerators for disposal, or to waste-to-energy plants, special facilities that allow plastic waste to be burned, generating electricity and alternative fuels that can be used within various industrial sectors. Again according to the data reported by Corepla, thanks to the recovery of plastic packaging in 2021, 42 GWh of electric energy and 86 GWh of thermal energy were produced, eqal to the annual energy consumption of about 15,555 Italian households and the natural gas consumption of about 5,823 households.

Recycling plastics with a view to a circular economy

The 'circular economy' refers to a production and consumption model that aims to extend the life cycle of products with the objective of minimising the generation of new waste. According to the circular economy model, once the end-of-life has been reached, plastic materials used in the production of packaging or everyday objects must be reintroduced into the production cycle, if possible, generating additional value. Thanks to an increasingly efficient system of collection, recycling and post-consumer recovery of plastics, it is therefore possible to give full circularity to the life cycle of plastic packaging, but also to save new resources and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Only in cases where the recovery or landfill disposal is envisaged.

Also with a view to the circular economy, the European Commission recently adopted new rules to allow the use of recycled plastic also in food packaging. The rules of the new regulation (which will be binding from July 2023) cover the safety of recycled plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with food and will help the recycling industry to establish appropriate ways to recycle plastic, which currently cannot be reused as food packaging. The legislation will therefore significantly reduce plastic waste from the food sector and help to increase the sustainability of packaging and achieve the objectives of the circular economy plan.

Plastisac's commitment to plastic recycling

Plastisac has always been committed to producing increasingly sustainable plastic packaging, to favouring the recycling and recovery of plastic waste and to reducing the environmental impact of all the company's processes and operations. Over the years, the company has constantly innovated its technologies and invested in the research and development of greener solutions that respect the environment and a production model linked to the circular economy, guaranteeing the complete traceability of polyethylene products.

Recycling and the development of virtuosus supply chains for waste collection, as well as the reduction of the Carbon Footprint of plastic bags and of all polyethylene products manufactured, have always been among Plastisac's top priorities. Plastisac's top priorities. Plastisac was one of the first companies in Italy in the flexible packaging sector to obtain the CFP Systematic Approach certification (UNI EN ISO 14067) - the system that allows the validation of the management system for the calculation of the product Carbon Footprint, i.e. tha analysis of the carbon footprint of the life cycle of each item produced.

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