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The Complete Plastics Recycling Process

July 9, 2022

The Complete Plastics Recycling Process

Plastics are entrenched into our lives, making it hard to remove them. In the modern world, plastics are used everywhere. Recycling is the best way to reduce the number of plastics in our environment.

So, how do you recycle plastics? Keep reading to learn about the plastic recycling process and its benefits, including:

  • What is the plastic recycling process
  • Why is plastic recycling important
  • The plastic recycling process steps

What Is the Plastic Recycling Process?

The plastic recycling process is the sorting and shredding of photochemical materials to create useful and functional products. Recycling breaks down plastics often thrown away as trash. The purpose of the plastic recycling process is to benefit the environment, including the environment, ecosystems and human life.

Plastic recycling seeks to reduce pollution by eliminating plastics from the environment. Additionally, when the recycling process is done correctly, it enables plastic waste to be reused in future plastic products.

Why Is Plastic Recycling Important?

Plastic waste causes many problems including, but not limited to, animal fatalities, pollution, and health concerns.

Plastic recycling is vital in extending the lives of landfill sites. Recycling also reduces pollutants and irritants in the environment. Furthermore, producing products through recycling saves energy more than manufacturing, as well as reducing the negative impacts of non-biodegradable materials on the environment.

Recycling plastic is less time-consuming and cheaper than manufacturing new materials. The process also aids in the cleanliness and safety of the environment in part by reducing fossil fuel usage, as plastic is made from crude oil. The United States Environmental Protection Agency encourages recycling to divert plastic materials from oceans and other water sources.

Furthermore, plastic recycling creates employment opportunities and added revenue for businesses and government agencies.

The Plastic Recycling Process Steps

Here are the six steps of the new plastic recycling process.

Step 1: Collection

The first step involves collecting used plastic materials from homes and institutions. Plastic recyclers will place their recycling containers in public places, with most placing them in commercial districts and industrial zones. After being deposited, used plastic in these containers are then bulked together before being transported to the recycling facilities.

Collection is an essential first step as the more plastic is collected, the more material there will be for the recycling process. This first step is where everyone can contribute. When depositing your used plastic into these recycling containers, be sure to separate common waste and plastic waste materials before doing so.

Step 2: Sorting

Plastic comes in different types, so the sorting facility will first need to separate them. They often categorize the plastic by color or thickness. Sorting is usually done by machine, primarily located at the recycling location to increase efficiency and scale. However, in many smaller communities, plastic sorting is done by hand, often driven by volunteers.

Sorting is vital as it identifies the waste materials and the correct processes to recycle the plastics. Most recycling machines can only recycle one type of plastic at a time. Manual picking, ballistic separation, or magnetic separation are used to separate the plastic for further processing.

Manual picking will separate large items and OCC screening to remove old corrugated cardboard from the waste. A ballistic separator, on the other hand, is used to remove rigid waste.

Eddy currents separators (ECS) sort out any non-ferrous metals found within the plastic waste. The separator consists of a large magnet that creates currents, separating metallic from non-metallic materials.  

Optical sorting machines use infrared measurements to identify plastic types. Optical machines feature sensors that measure the absorbencies of plastic. The method uses forward and backward ejection methods, placing the plastic material into a short conveyor belt for the scanner to identify the plastic type.

In particular circumstances, a sink float separator is used to help differentiate low density and high-density plastic.It works by filling a large tank with water and placing the plastic inside.

Washing removes impurities that may obstruct the recycling process. Recycling facilities wash the waste properly to avoid ruining the recycled plastic. The most common impurities that they must clean include dirt and organic residue. Although the plastic is cleaned at this stage, it’s helpful to ensure the waste is free from impurities at the collection stage.

Step 3: Washing

The whole recycling process is more effective when the plastic is rinsed before it becomes dry. The facility will then pass the plastic through several washing methods depending on the level of contamination. Recyclers use friction washers because they are cost-effective and require less labor. The washer either utilizes kinetic energy or heat to eliminate contaminants.

The rotary washer is another notable option to wash plastic of contaminants. Rotary washers are used as pre-washers, but this depends on the degree of contamination in the plastics.

Step 4: Shredding

After washing, the plastic is fed into shredders. Shredders play an essential role in waste management by reducing the size and recouping waste plastic. At this point, the shredder breaks down the plastic into tiny pieces.

The shredded plastic is essential in the next stages. In addition, smaller pieces of plastic can be crucial in other applications.

Shredding plastic allows any impurities to be found and removed. For instance, recyclers can remove metal after breaking down the plastic. Any leftover metal is then removed using a metal detector or magnet. In addition, resizing makes it easier to transport and process the final product.

Step 5: Identification of Plastics

At this stage, the plastic is tested for its class. Plastics are separated based on density. Recyclers will float the plastic particles in a basin of water to see that more dense plastic sinks while less dense particles float.

Next, the air classification test is performed to identify the thickness of plastic. The air classification test is done by putting small pieces of plastic into a wind tunnel. Thick pieces fly high up the tunnel, and big particles remain lower.

Recycling facilities may also test to identify the plastics including melting point and color. They can determine the melting point by carefully analyzing the samples of plastic collected. After the identification process, it’s time to take the plastic for further processing.

Step 6: Compounding

Compounding is the final step in the plastic recycling process, which involves transforming the shredded or resized plastics into usable products for manufacturers. They resize the plastic to form pellets. Manufacturers use pellets to produce other plastic products.

However, not all types of plastics are compounded at a single plant. That’s why recyclers must send the plastic to other recycling plants for the final step. Some companies cannot process all plastic types. New types of plastics will emerge at the end of the compounding process.

It’s possible to recycle a wide variety of plastic types, such as:

  • Nylons
  • ABS
  • Acetal
  • Polyethylene


Plastics are detrimental to the environment we live in. You can make a difference by becoming more aware of the plastics around you, as well as starting to recycle plastics appropriately where there are recycling containers. Second Life has invested in plastic recycling operations that help companies seeking to reduce plastic waste worldwide. We partner with brands to expand waste collection efforts to different communities globally. Learn more about our projects or contact our team here.