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Recycling Plastics

Recycling Plastics

Polymers (from Greek words poly meaning “many” and mer meaning “parts”) are large molecules made up of repeating units, referred to as monomers. Polymers can be natural (starch is a polymer of sugar residues and proteins are polymers of amino acids) or synthetic [like polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polystyrene].

The variety of structures of polymers translates into a broad range of properties and uses that make them integral parts of our everyday lives. Adding functional groups to the structure of a polymer can result in significantly different properties (see the discussion about Kevlar later in this tutorial).

An example of a polymerization reaction is shown in the figure below. The monomer ethylene (C2H4) is a gas at room temperature, but when polymerized, using a transition metal catalyst, it is transformed into a solid material made up of long chains of –CH2– units called polyethylene. Polyethylene is a commodity plastic used primarily for packaging (bags and films).

This diagram has three rows, showing ethylene reacting to form polyethylene. In the first row, Lewis structural formulas show three molecules of ethylene being added together, which are each composed of two doubly bonded C atoms, each with two bonded H atoms. Ellipses, or three dots, are present before and after the molecule structures, which in turn are followed by an arrow pointing right. On the right side of the arrow, the ellipses or dots again appear to the left of a dash that connects to a chain of 7 C atoms, each with H atoms connected above and below. A dash appears at the end of the chain, which in turn is followed by ellipses or dots. The reaction diagram is repeated in the second row using ball-and-stick models for the structures. In these representations, single bonds are represented with sticks, double bonds are represented with two parallel sticks, and elements are represented with balls. Carbon atoms are black and hydrogen atoms are white in this image. In the third row, space-filling models are shown. In these models, atoms are enlarged spheres which are pushed together, without sticks to represent bonds.

The reaction for the polymerization of ethylene to polyethylene is shown.

Polyethylene is a member of one subset of synthetic polymers classified as plastics. Plastics are synthetic organic solids that can be molded; they are typically organic polymers with high molecular masses. Most of the monomers that go into common plastics (ethylene, propylene, vinyl chloride, styrene, and ethylene terephthalate) are derived from petrochemicals and are not very biodegradable, making them candidate materials for recycling. Recycling plastics helps minimize the need for using more of the petrochemical supplies and also minimizes the environmental damage caused by throwing away these nonbiodegradable materials.

Plastic recycling is the process of recovering waste, scrap, or used plastics, and reprocessing the material into useful products. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (soft drink bottles) can be melted down and used for plastic furniture, in carpets, or for other applications. Other plastics, like polyethylene (bags) and polypropylene (cups, plastic food containers), can be recycled or reprocessed to be used again.

Many areas of the country have recycling programs that focus on one or more of the commodity plastics that have been assigned a recycling code (see the figure below). These operations have been in effect since the 1970s and have made the production of some plastics among the most efficient industrial operations today.

This table shows recycling symbols, names, and uses of various types of plastics. Symbols are shown with three arrows in a triangular shape surrounding a number. Number 1 is labeled P E T E. The related plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (P E T E), is used in soda bottles and oven-ready food trays. Number 2 is labeled H D P E. The related plastic is high-density polyethylene (H D P E), which is used in bottles for milk and dishwashing liquids. Number 3 is labeled V. The related plastic is polyvinyl chloride or (P V C). This plastic is used in food trays, plastic wrap, and bottles for mineral water and shampoo. Number 4 is labeled L D P E. This plastic is low density polyethylene (L D P E). It is used in shopping bags and garbage bags. Number 5 is labeled P P. The related plastic is polypropylene (P P). It is used in margarine tubs and microwaveable food trays. Number 6 is labeled P S. The related plastic is polystyrene (P S). It is used in yogurt tubs, foam meat trays, egg cartons, vending cups, plastic cutlery, and packaging for electronics and toys. Number 7 is labeled other for any other plastics. Items in this category include those plastic materials that do not fit any other category. Melamine used in plastic plates and cups is an example.

Each type of recyclable plastic is imprinted with a code for easy identification.

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