Plastic

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Plastic is tough, light, strong, easily moulded into almost any shape, can be made in many colours, lasts a long time and is waterproof. This all makes it an ideal material for many things. In the past there was the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age all named after the most important material used by people at the time. Today could be called the Plastic Age we use it so much. Take a look around you and I’m sure you will be able to see many different things made from plastic.

Most plastic is also non-biodegradable, meaning that it can take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose after being sent to the landfill. Another place plastics cause problems is in the sea. Bags, bottles and other plastic waste dropped from ships are eaten by turtles, tangle the legs of seabirds and cause many other problems.

There are many different types of plastic and this makes it very difficult to recycle. In fact, there are about 50 different groups, with hundreds of plastics within each group!

Most plastics are made from oil from deep under the ground or under the seabed. Oil is found in many parts of the world including the Middle East (countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates), the USA and Russia. Other countries including Venezuela in South America and Nigeria in Africa are also becoming increasingly important producers of oil.

The oil that comes out of the ground is called crude oil and is made of lots of different chemicals, which need to be separated before they can be used. During this separating process we get petrol, diesel, home heating oil and even wax for candles, as well as the raw material for plastics.

To make plastic, the chemicals from oil are heated under pressure. This means they are squeezed together as they are heated and this forces them to stick together to make the plastic.

The plastic is then made into pellets for transport to the factories where it will be made into the final product.

As there are many different types of plastic, in most places the plastic thing collected for recycling are plastic bottles. This is because bottles are always made from one of two types of plastic. Plastics have long, complicated names that are usually shortened to a few letters. The plastics used in bottles are Polyethylene Terephthalate, PET for short and High Density Polyethylene or HDPE. If you look at the bottom of a plastic bottle there is usually a tiny recycling symbol with a number in it. The number tells you the type of plastic, a 1 means it’s a PET bottle (for example water and fizzy drink bottles), a 2 and it’s HDPE (for example shampoo and washing up liquid bottles).

These two plastics are the highest quality and worth the most money.

In many places you can recycle plastic bottles in your recycling bin or Kerbie box. Many Recycling Centres have plastic bottle banks and some also take other plastics like yoghurt pots and plastic bags. Recycling banks are also found in the car parks at supermarkets.

The bottles are crushed into blocks before transportation to the recycling factories.

Contact your local Council for more information on where you can recycle plastic.

  • recycling plastic involves melting and remoulding the waste plastic into a new shape or making it into granules or pellets that are then used to make new products in other factories.
  • the PET bottles need to be separated from the HDPE ones. This is often done using a special camera and a laser or using water. The bottles are shredded and pass into a water tank, the PET sinks and the HDPE floats.
  • once separated the plastics are made into new products. E.g. HDPE bottles are recycled into water pipes and guttering; PET bottles are recycled into clothing, carpets and stuffing for quilts and pillows.
  • very few plastic bottles are recycled into new plastic bottles.
  • oil from deep beneath the land or seabed can be hard to reach and getting it out can cause serious environmental damage, producing large amounts of waste and toxic gas. There is also the chance that oil will accidentally leak from pipes or ships causing terrible pollution
  • oil is a non-renewable resource that will eventually run out. Recycling plastic reduces the amount of oil needed to make new plastic.
  • currently over 8% of the worlds total oil production is used in the manufacture of plastic.
  • recycling plastic uses less energy which means less air pollution. Recycling one plastic bottle saves enough energy to run a 60watt light bulb for 6 hours.
  • plastic waste takes up a lot of space, so recycling reduces the volume of waste going to landfill sites.