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Plastic Basics: How It’s Made and Recycled

Since the early 20th century when the development of plastics was just beginning until today, the material has been overwhelmingly important for some of the world’s greatest achievements and has had an immense impact on our day-to-day lives. From the plastic water bottle you may carry around to the phone you’re looking at now and many other electronics, to packaging, construction materials, equipment and machines used in the healthcare industry, the vehicle you drive — plastics have helped form the modern world as we know it.

However, as early as the 1950s, the mining and extracting of the materials used to make plastics, the manufacture of plastics, and the build-up of used, non-recycled plastic products in landfills have been contributing to environmental pollution.

It has been possible to recycle plastic products since the material’s invention, but recycling didn’t occur regularly until the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency was established, the first Earth Day occurred in 1970, and the first recycling mill began operation in Pennsylvania in 1972.

Since then, there have been various programs established to encourage reusing and recycling plastics, more and more recycling mills have opened, companies around the globe have been making an effort to recycle, and plastic granulators and other recycling machines have been developed in order to more efficiently recycle the vast number of products made from plastic.

At Cumberland, we are dedicated to helping companies better recycle plastic materials by developing plastic granulators and shredders that are known throughout the industry for their safety, quality, and reliability. Since 1939, we have recognized a need for innovative technology and equipment that will help keep our world clean and as free of pollution as possible. Throughout the entire plastic production process, we strive to do our part in helping protect our planet.

The Plastic Production and Recycling Process – The Basics

To better understand Cumberland’s role in helping businesses recycle plastic, it helps to understand the overall process of how plastic is made and how it’s recycled. The life cycle of plastics can be complicated and involves a lot of chemistry, so here is just the basic process.

How is Plastic Made?

Producing plastic starts by extracting raw materials, including natural gas, cellulose, coal, and crude oil. Crude oil is a complex mixture essential to how plastics are made. These raw materials are refined into ethane and propane. Ethane and propane then go through a heat treatment process known as “cracking,” which converts them into monomers such as ethylene and propylene.

There are several types of monomers, which are single molecules that can be linked together to form chains of larger molecules, or polymers. A polymer “fluff” is created by combining monomers with a catalyst in order to link them together. The “fluff” is a substance similar to powdered laundry detergent. Different polymers are then combined to form resins, which have distinct properties and characteristics.

The resin substance is then fed through an extruder, where it is melted down, fed into a pipe, and then it forms into a long tube as it cools. The plastic tube can then be cut into small pellets. The pellets are shipped to factories where they can be melted down again and molded into the plastic products you are familiar with.

There are seven types of plastic which can be made depending on the type of polymer that was used in the production of the plastic — polyethylenes can be both rigid or flexible; polyesters can be made to be low or high temperature resistant depending on the product being created.

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE or Polyester): Used for water bottles and food packaging. These plastics can be recycled.
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Used for sturdier containers like milk jugs, motor oil, detergent, and toys. This type of plastic can also be recycled.
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Used for plumbing pipes, grocery bags, shoes, tile, gutters, etc. PVC plastics can be recycled, but is a more difficult process.
  4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Used for sandwich bags, frozen food bags, flexible lids, etc. LDPE plastics are also more difficult to recycle.
  5. Polypropylene (PP): Used for Tupperware, take-out containers, yogurt containers, and disposable cups. PP plastics can be repurposed into ice scrapers, rakes, and battery cables.
  6. Polystyrene (PS): Used for disposable cups, plastic cutlery, packing peanuts, etc. PS plastics can be repurposed into insulation, rulers, etc.
  7. Other: Plastics like styrene, fiberglass, and nylon are used for CDs, larger water bottles, eyeglasses, lighting fixtures, etc. This type of plastic is often repurposed into materials used for outdoor decks, molding, and park benches.

How is Plastic Recycled?

There are essentially seven steps to the recycling process, but the specifics depend on the type of plastic being recycled.

  1. Collection: Recyclable plastic is collected by businesses and individuals and is sent to processing plants.
  2. Sorting: At the recycling facility, the plastic is sorted by color and type.
  3. Washing: Before the plastic is processed, it needs to be washed. This removed all impurities that can impact the quality of the recycled product.
  4. Shredding: The plastic products are broken down into a manageable size with plastic shredders. The two- to four-inch plastic fragments are then sorted by size and weight where they can be broken down even further.
  5. Granulating: Plastic granulators break down the fragments into fractions of an inch. There are different types of plastic granulators, including beside-the-press, central, heavy-duty, and thermoforming granulators. Which type of granulator is used depends on the amount of plastic being recycled, the type of plastic, and the processing facility’s needs. Cumberland provides all types of plastic granulators with various features, add-ons, and more.
  6. Disinfecting: The plastic particles are disinfected and sorted by specialized machines based on their resin content.
  7. Extrusion: The final step is smashing and melting the plastic particles into pellets. These plastic pellets are used to manufacture a variety of new plastic products.

Even though the entire process of extracting the raw materials, creating the plastic, and recycling the material can be complicated, it is essential in ensuring that the raw materials gathered from the earth are used effectively and as completely as possible. Without the recycling process, our planet would be consumed with used plastic products and their potential for future reuse would be impossible.

At Cumberland, we develop and manufacture plastic granulators and shredders in order to help protect our planet. Plastic recycling facilities have come to depend on our rugged, reliable, and dependable plastic reduction equipment. Whether you need a new system entirely, a part for your equipment, or want existing equipment refurbished, you can count on the team at Cumberland to provide the manufacturing technology and equipment you need.

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