Plastic is widely used in almost every aspect of modern life, and its benefits are extensive. It’s lightweight; helps avoid greenhouse gas emissions during transportation and use compared to many alternatives; and significantly extends the shelf life of perishables.
Many types of plastic can be easily recycled, like water bottles and milk jugs. But some types of plastic packaging contain layers of different materials and often can’t be recycled the traditional way. In fact, only 14% of plastic packaging – like bottles and containers – is recycled into other products using traditional recycling. So what happens to the other 86%?*
A new class of technologies, known as advanced recycling, can help address this challenge. Advanced recycling has the potential to process the majority of used plastic, so it can be remade into new products. Since 2017, more than 70 advanced recycling projects have been announced in the U.S. with the potential to divert more than 5.5 million metric tons (about 12.1 billion pounds) of waste from landfills annually.
Alterra Energy, located in Akron, Ohio, is one of the many advanced recycling facilities that can take harder-to-recycle plastics, like snack packages, and give them a new life.
Facilities like Alterra take tons of used plastic from various sources and transform them back into their original building blocks, which are used to make new products.
Examples include snack packaging, foam, pouches, and tubes.
Machines process the used plastic and remove non-plastic materials, like metals and paper, as well as contaminants, like dirt.
To prepare the sorted plastic for the next step, Alterra shreds or grinds the plastic so that it can feed it into the process.
- The heat causes the plastic to melt and vaporize. “Think about melting ice. If you put an ice cube in a pot on your stove, the ice will melt into water, and then evaporate, leaving behind anything extra, like salt,” DeBenedictis explains.
- Alterra condenses these vapors into a hydrocarbon liquid, plastic’s original building block, which is used to create new products, including new plastic.
- And just like melting ice and separating it from salt, contaminants are left behind so they don’t end up in the final product.
Advanced recycling technologies help conserve resources by displacing use of new oil and natural gas.
Did you know?
Advanced recycling facilities across the country are regulated similar to other manufacturing facilities, including food and auto manufacturing, through government requirements to protect both the environment and people’s health.
The building blocks created from advanced recycling are sent to manufacturers that can use them — instead of new oil or natural gas — to make new plastic.
And now, this plastic can become a variety of new products. This new plastic may even be used to create the packaging for your favorite snack again.
By recycling significantly greater amounts of plastics than ever before, items like our snack packaging can now go from being used once to being used again and again.