November 15, 2009 – Vol.14 No.35
NEXT GENERATION PLASTICS RECYCLING.
by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News
It has always been hoped that as more products were developed using recycled plastics, more demand would be created for recycled plastic material thus increasing its value and, in the end, increasing collection and recycling efforts.
So far plastic appears to be one of the least recycled materials. Perhaps that’s ready to change.
One example of a new use of recycled plastic comes from Axion International Holdings of New Providence, New Jersey. That company has won a $957,000 contract from the U.S. Army for the construction of two railroad bridges designed from nearly 100 percent recycled plastics. The main structural components of the bridges to be built at Fort Eustis, Virginia,home of the US Army Transportation Corps, will be made from recycled consumer and industrial plastics using Axion’s proprietary immiscible blending. Axion calls its products Recycled Structural Composites (RSC).
With load rating capacities of 130 tons, these bridges will reach a new milestone in thermoplastic load bearing capacity, surpassing the current record held by Axion’s bridges at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Those bridges are able to support loads more than 73 tons for tracked vehicles and 88 tons for wheeled vehicles. The new short span bridges at Fort Eustis will extend approximately 40 feet and 80 feet respectively and will use two of the company’s core infrastructure products - bridges and railroad cross ties.
Axion's tank and truck carrying recycled plastic bridge.
Lots of infrastructure projects using high volume of maintenance-free recycled plastic would certainly create more demand for ready-for-manufacture recycled material. Another possibility is for the process of plastic recycling to become more technically sophisticated to the point where raw recycled plastic material can compete with virgin plastics: that is become a new material in itself.
Now that seems possible with the development of a new technology from Plastinum, a plastics recycling research and development company based in The Netherlands with operations in the US and Switzerland.
The company has provided a wealth of fascinating material about plastics and plastics recycling.
The global production and consumption of plastics has increased by about 10 percent each year since 1950 from less than 5.5 million tons per year then to nearly 300 million tons in 2007. Over a third of all plastics now produced are used for packaging (such as bottles) and a quarter is used in construction materials like pipes.
As a raw material, plastic production has increased dramatically over the past three decades: more than 500 percent. Comparatively steel production has increased globally only about 60 percent in the same period.
Despite an often bad reputation plastics have some fine qualities. A huge variety of products can be made with plastic that couldn’t be before it was invented. Plastic products are light compared with other materials, saving energy in their transport. Used in vehicles such as cars, plastics have made them lighter, saving fuel. Plastics are durable and resistant to many chemicals and water. When used as a building product, such a Axion’s Army bridges, plastic will not rot.)
That’s some of the good stuff about plastic. There’s lots of bad.
Plastic is a consumer of oil, though arguably it’s put to better use as a material than as a fuel. Plastinum says that it is estimated that 8 percent of the world’s annual production of oil is consumed in the production of plastics with 4 percent as raw material and 4 percent used as energy during manufacture.
There are of course problems of emissions in the production of plastics as well as potentially harmful chemicals that have leaked into the environment from its production.
Plastic waste is a mountainous problem worldwide. The global total of plastic waste is estimated at 100 million tons per year and growing. Unfortunately, only 2 percent of that is actually recycled. Most of the plastic that is recycled is those ever-present plastic bottles made of PET or HDPE polymers. Those products are recycled because they are easily identified and separated from other plastic types.
The problem of plastics recycling is that there are so many different formulas that are difficult to identify and when possible to identify, expensive to separate. A glut of e-waste (or WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment)) such as old televisions, computer monitors, cell phones and the like, are a significant source of plastics that are nearly impossible to recycle.
Recycling electronics is growing through electronics manufacturers and retailers, but all too often only the metals, glass and electronic bits are salvaged with the plastic cases sent to the landfill or incinerated.)
It’s recycling mixed-plastic waste streams that Plastinum has an answer to. The company has developed a technology process it calls BLENDYMER which can convert any combination of plastic from water bottles and car bumpers and broken resin chairs into a new plastic material which it calls Infinymer. The product has characteristics comparable to thermoplastics such as Polypropylene, Polyethylene and ABS Polystyrene. Infinymer (tm) pellets can be used in standard plastics manufacturing processes such as injection, extrusion, blow and compression molding. Infinymer is not considered a waste product but new product, a new thermoplastic material.
There are ways to put plastic waste to work such as converting it to an oil product that can be refined into fuels or back into to same chemicals used to make plastic in the first place. All together, with conventional plastics recycling, Plastinum’s process, or plastic-to-oil processes it appears as though plastic no longer has to end up buried under a layer of dirt or incinerated. Who knows, in a decade or so plastic waste will be a valuable resource and one environmental problem that can be mostly eliminated.